Against all expectations, Scott Brown has made the New Hampshire Senate race competitive — and done it with hawkish stands on immigration and national security.
Brown’s victory in the 2010 special election to replace the late senator Ted Kennedy in the liberal stronghold of Massachusetts provided the most dramatic symbol of the country’s distaste for President Obama’s pending health-care overhaul; it was a harbinger of the resounding defeats that Democrats would suffer in the November midterms.
Now, as the Republican challenger to Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), Brown has run a variation of his 2010 strategy, with an emphasis on immigration rather than Obamacare (a law he still opposes).
“This race is about immigration,” Brown told conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham during a September interview. “There is a rational fear from citizens in New Hampshire and throughout this country that people are coming — either criminal elements, terrorist elements, or people with diseases — coming through our border,” he said Thursday evening during a debate with Shaheen.
Of the three state races considered a reach for Republicans at the outset of the midterm-election season — Minnesota, Oregon, and New Hampshire — only Brown’s campaign remains a contender; he trails Shaheen by 1.8 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Brown’s decision to beat the drum on border security has won him the hearts of conservative activists and voters. After his stunning win in the deep-blue Bay State, the moderate Brown quickly frustrated the tea-party voters who had helped carry him to victory, siding with Democrats on key issues from the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill to John Kerry’s arms-reduction treaty with Russia. In 2012, the year of his doomed reelection campaign, he voted with President Obama about 78 percent of the time.
His focus on border security, the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, and the federal government’s inadequate response to the Ebola crisis has allowed him to consolidate the Republican base while reaching the independent voters who make up the bulk of the New Hampshire electorate. These issues have crossover appeal, and Brown emphasized them during televised debates.
“Scott has discovered that those issues resonate with constituencies that had been drifting away from Republicans,” former New Hampshire governor John Sununu tells National Review Online.
Brown trailed by twelve points in the WMUR Granite State Poll, released on July 1. Two weeks later, he became the first Republican Senate candidate to release an ad highlighting the surge of unaccompanied children at the southern border.
“Thanks to the pro-amnesty policies of President Obama and Senator Shaheen, we have an immigration crisis on our hands,” Brown said in the July ad. “We respond with compassion, but it’s time for us to secure the border, once and for all, and tell people who try to come here illegally that we intend to enforce the law.”
By mid August, the Granite State poll showed Brown down only two points. His progress has been aided by other factors as well. The president’s unpopularity, Obamacare’s premium increases and plan cancellations, and Shaheen’s failure to conduct town-hall meetings over the past two years have all contributed to her vulnerability.
Still, the correlation between Brown’s outspokenness on border security and his surge in the polls has excited immigration hawks. In her radio show on Thursday, Ingraham dubbed Brown “a leader in the fight against swamping the American work force with new foreign workers.”
All of this, however, is a matter of emphasis, and no one will mistake Brown for Texas senator Ted Cruz, a tea-party favorite. Even in Thursday’s debate, Brown said that he would “potentially” support “a process” that would allow people already in the country illegally to remain here. Sounding tougher, he added: “But until we’re absolutely sure that they can’t get those [welfare] benefits to continue to reward that illegality, I can’t support it.”
His tone has been consistently firm on national security. When President Obama told reporters “we don’t have a strategy yet” for targeting the Islamic State in Syria, Brown called for the president to revoke the passports of Americans who have joined the terrorist group. The proposal hearkened back to a bill he sponsored in 2010 that revoked the citizenship of expatriate terrorists.
Political observers say Brown had the room to tack right in part because New Hampshire voters, most of whom live within the Boston media market, know him as a moderate from his 2010 and 2012 Senate campaigns. The move to the right has helped Brown rally the Republican voters who had supported his more conservative rivals in the primary season.
More to the point, Sununu and other GOP strategists also say that the summer foreign-policy crises have helped him win over “security moms” who might otherwise have been susceptible to the Democrats’ “war on women” talking points. (The fact that Brown is pro-choice is also inconvenient for Shaheen.)
That’s also true of the latest issue confronting candidates on the trail: the health-care crisis presented by the Ebola virus, which has appeared in two American cities in addition to ravaging three West African countries. Brown has been outspoken in his calls for a travel ban. Shaheen’s response has been more muddled.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer opened Tuesday’s debate with a question on the topic. Referring to the doctor recently diagnosed with Ebola in New York City, Blitzer asked, “Should the federal government mandate quarantines for high-risk individuals like this doctor?” While Brown replied, “Absolutely, that doctor should have been quarantined.” Shaheen failed to give a concise answer, recommending that policymakers defer to experts.
“It’s very typical that Senator Shaheen waits to get the okay from the president to do many different types of things,” Brown replied.
A victory in New Hampshire would be a coup for Republicans in general and especially for immigration hawks eager to prove that voters respond to their message.
“Everyone, including a state as far from the border as New Hampshire, wants the border closed,” Sununu says. “He’s speaking about it frequently, and his numbers are moving.”
If Brown wins, the takeaway will be that Republicans can fight Democratic immigration policies, maintain a hawkish stance on national security, and win elections — even in the Northeast.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.