Scott Brown: Real Deal or RINO?

Barely six months after he won the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy in a nationally watched special election, Scott Brown remains something of a mystery to the pundits and pols who are closely watching the former state legislator widely considered a Republican superstar, Profiled recently in publications ranging from the Washington Post to the Financial Times,.

But mystery or not, one thing is clear:  Sen. Brown’s including a few Democrat-like key votes in an overall record that is far less liberal than that of any Massachusetts GOP member of Congress in memory is working.  Brown is by far the most popular office-holder in the Bay State, with 55% of voters approving of his performance and only 18% disapproving, according to the latest Boston Globe poll.

In addition, Brown has been eagerly sought out to campaign for them by GOP candidates nationwide this year. During a recent interview last week, Rhode Island State Rep. John Loughlin, who is seeking the seat of retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D.-R.I.), made a point of telling me, “Scott Brown’s going to campaign for us.”  A day before his historic special election win in Hawaii’s 1st U.S. House District earlier this year, Republican Charles Djou gleefully told me how Brown had signed a letter on his behalf and that his election triumph “would be the next major step after Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts.” 

A ‘Scott Brown Republican’ ?

So just who is this Scott Brown that they all talk about and what does he mean when he calls himself just “a Scott Brown Republican?”

The freshman senator from Massachusetts has disappointed conservatives on a number of critical issues, ranging from his vote in February to quash the Republican-led filibuster against the Obama-backed jobs bill to Brown’s support last week for the financial reform bill so vigorously sought by the White House.  In taking these positions,  Brown aligned himself with the diminishing group of liberal Republicans in the Senate such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins who vote more with the Democrats than with their GOP colleagues. 

But are conservatives repudiating Brown already, dismissing him as just another “RINO” (a Republican In Name Only) ?   Not in any large number.

“Scott is doing what he has to do to respond to the various constituencies in Massachusetts,” Jim Rappaport, moderate-to-conservative former state GOP chairman and 1990 Republican nominee against Sen. John Kerry, told me,.  “Do I agree with everything he has done? No.  But then again, I agree only with my wife 100% of the time.”  (In ’02, then-State Sen. Brown broke with gubernatorial nominee Mitt Romney to support Rappaport over Romney’s choice for lieutenant governor, liberal Republican Christy Healy.)
More often than not, criticism of Brown on the right for votes such as those for the jobs bill or the financial reform package is muted and drowned out by praise for his other votes: against the Health Care Reconciliation Act (fulfilling the promise that was the basis of his campaign for Kennedy’s seat), against extending unfunded unemployment benefits on April 15, against deployment of the National Guard to the Southern border, and, most recently, his announced opposition to the administration-backed DISCLOSE Act, designed to gut the Supreme Court’s landmark free-speech decision in the Citizens United case.

U.S. Army Reserve Col. Brown opposed ending the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and, after meeting with President Obama personally, the Washington Post reported, “declared that he could support a ‘comprehensive energy plan’ but not one that caps carbon emissions.

And there’s more.  Brown joined with Republican colleagues to uphold a filibuster against the President’s two pro-card-check nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.  (Obama eventually gave recess appointments to labor lawyer Mark Pearce and former Service Employees International Union counsel Craig Becker.).  Although he has not been in the Senate long enough for most organizations to rate his voting record, Brown did score a very respectable “B” with Gun Owners of America.

McCain With Charm

You get the picture.  An overall record like Brown’s would have been out of the question for either of the last two Republican senators from Massachusetts, liberals Ed Brooke (1966-78) and Leverett Saltonstall (1944-66) or by most of the Massachusetts Republicans who have served most recently in the U.S. House.

“Scott Brown is doing just what he said he would do during the election,” said Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, White House political director under George H.W. Bush,  “He does his homework, then votes the way he feels is best for Massachusetts the country .  He has been thoughtful and straightforward.”
 Shortly after his election in January, Sen.-elect Brown was asked by reporters which of his future colleagues he would be most like and he named John McCain.  Although McCain has certainly irked conservatives on votes ranging from climate control to campaign finance to drilling for oil in Alaska, his lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 81.97%.  And much of McCain’s problem with his party’s conservative base has been his habit of often combining his non-conservative votes with invective toward those with whom he disagrees. 

Brown never does that and that is perhaps a big reason he is not hit with harsh criticism from conservatives when he occasionally “goes off the farm.”  Being “McCain with charm” appears to be working so far—and for a Republican in Massachusetts, that’s impressive.