Scott Brown's New Hampshire Problem

The problem with the former Massachusetts senator isn't refusing to sign a pledge, it's opportunism.

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Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Where?, is trying to do it again – in a different state.

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Senate shopper Scott Brown has Democrats charging him with lacking character because he refuses to take the so-called “People’s Pledge” to control outside spending in campaigns. Brown, should he end up announcing for the U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire, indeed has problems. But refusing to take the pledge isn’t one of them.

Brown and the Democrat who defeated him in Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both agreed to a pact under which each would pay a 50 percent penalty for every outside ad run on their behalf – whether it was an ad supporting either of them, or opposing the other candidate. The money would go to fund a charity of the opposing candidate’s choice.

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It was a fine idea, in terms of civic duty and honesty. It was an even better idea for the long-term integrity of candidates in both parties, who are understandably aggravated at the loss of control they are having over their own campaigns. But from a practical (and even political) perspective, it’s not that useful. There’s not much point taking the high road if it means you lose an election. And the public relations boost from signing such a pledge (or the hit from refusing to sign one) is minimal. Barack Obama knew that when he flipped his position, in the 2008 campaign and decided not to accept federal public campaign funds, allowing him to raise as much as he wanted on his own. Yes, he got slammed for it by John McCain’s campaign, and in the media. He still vastly out-raised McCain and ended up getting elected – twice.

Money isn’t the only reason Brown lost re-election in Massachusetts, and it won’t be the reason he wins or loses the New Hampshire seat, should he formally announce. Brown’s election to the Senate was something of a fluke. He was running in a special election in the middle of winter, at a time when tea party-esque discontent was brewing across the nation (including in generally liberal Massachusetts). Democrats had become foolishly complacent in the Bay State, exemplified by the blasé attitude of their nominee, Martha Coakley, who actually went on vacation in between the primary and general election. It was a perfect storm for Brown, who ran a much better campaign, and he scored a stunning victory.

[See political cartoons about the tea party movement.]

But Massachusetts is still Massachusetts, which is why Brown lost to Warren, a solid, serious, Democrat, and likely why he declined to challenge Ed Markey the next time a Massachusetts Senate seat came open. Could he replicate the dynamics of his first Senate race by popping over the border to New Hampshire?

History tells us otherwise. Never, in our lifetimes, has someone managed to win a Senate seat in two different states. True, campaigns in general are becoming more nationalized, and the Granite State is right next door. But it smacks of opportunism, and voters tend not to like it. Parachuting into a state to run for Senate can work (witness Hillary Clinton in New York). But there again, the fundamentals were different. New Yorkers in general are more transient and tolerant of those who are. Clinton was a bona fide political star – the sort of heavyweight the Empire State is used to having among its representatives in Congress – and she worked relentlessly to sell herself to New Yorkers, particularly to Western New Yorkers and upstaters who decide statewide elections. Brown has a certain following in New Hampshire, but his candidacy makes him look like a sore loser who doesn’t want to stand up for New Hampshire residents as much as he wants to come back to Washington. And that – not the so-called People’s Pledge – is what will be hard for Brown to overcome.