Republicans like to brand insufficiently conservative members of their own party as RINOs—Republicans in Name Only. But in Massachusetts, Republicans are by definition RINOs. If you're not a RINO, you don't get elected.
Maybe that's why conservative Republican Scott Brown's candidacy for Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat got so little attention for so long. He trailed his Democratic counterpart, Attorney General Martha Coakley, in the polls and in fundraising. Local media dismissed him. The national party ignored him.
But in the last few weeks, polls have shown Brown closing the gap. (Although that gap ranges anywhere from 17 points to 1 point). Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty blasted out fundraising e-mails for him. A Ron Paul-style "moneybomb" this week reaped more than $1 million in a day. And the Democrats are getting skittish: The DNC sent a top aide to Boston to help out, Bill Clinton will campaign for Coakley on Friday, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is dropping $600,000 on TV ads in the region.
Brown may still be a long shot, but the stakes outweigh the odds. Losing Kennedy's seat—"the people's seat," Brown corrects—wouldn't be just symbolically humiliating for Democrats. It would lose them their 60th vote in the Senate. Without a filibuster-proof majority, passing health care reform would be complicated at best. At worst, it could derail the whole effort, along with much of President Obama's 2010 agenda.
What's so bizarre about Brown's sudden threat is that Republicans like him simply don't win in Massachusetts. Sure, they get elected to the state senate representing conservative districts, as Brown did. But they don't win statewide or national office. For decades, Massachusetts Republicans have had a formula for victory: fiscally conservative, socially liberal. Gov. Bill Weld famously supported gay marriage and abortion rights. Mitt Romney also supported gay rights as governor—a stance that came back to haunt him when he ran for president in 2008—and Gov. Paul Cellucci affirmed Roe v. Wade. Bay State voters like having a tightwad governor to serve as a check against the spendthrift Democratic state legislature, the thinking goes, but not one who will interfere on social issues. (Senators are a slightly different story: Republicans haven't occupied a seat since 1979.)
Brown outflanks them all. He doesn't just talk up his anti-tax credentials. (He took an anti-tax pledge to kick off his campaign.) He supports water-boarding. He endorses using military tribunals, instead of civilian courts, to try terrorists. He questions whether climate change is man-made. And he criticized Coakley for opposing the latest troop increase in Afghanistan. He even leans right on the untouchables, gay marriage and abortion—at least, by Massachusetts standards. He thinks marriage is between a man and a woman and voted in favor of a failed ban on gay marriage. (Brown points out his stance is the same as Obama's.) He's fudgy when it comes to abortion. On the one hand, he sounds like Obama: "While this decision should ultimately be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor, I believe we need to reduce the number of abortions in America,'' he said, essentially taking a pro-choice stance. Then again, he has the endorsement of the pro-life group Massachusetts Citizens for Life, supports parental-notification requirements, and opposes partial-birth abortion.
Can he win? It's been years since Massachusetts has elected a conservative Republican. Why would it start now?
The answer is a two-parter: He needs to win independents, and independents are getting more conservative. Republicans account for a mere 11 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts. Independents make up 51 percent. And polls show that independent voters are nervous about national issues like health care reform, Guantanamo, and terrorist trials, according to Tufts University political science professor Kent Portney. If the issues in the election were gay marriage and abortion, Brown's stances might be liabilities.
Brown's strategy also has to do with a changing ideological landscape. Rockefeller Republicans are a dying breed, says Marion Just, a political science professor at Wellesley College: "Brown represents the newer, younger version that does not embrace those values."
Running to the right also sets Brown up for victory down the road—no matter what the election's outcome. "My guess is that he believed he wasn't going to win this race," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "So instead, he's trying to embellish his career and rise above the obscurity of being a state senator in a state senate that ignores Republicans." (There are five Republicans in the 40-seat Senate.) Brown also avoids the Romney problem: If he does eventually seek another national office, he won't have to moderate his positions.
The most frustrating part for Democrats is that Republicans win either way. The party wins if Brown wins—sidelining health care, quashing cap-and-trade, and kicking off the 2010 comeback. And it wins if he loses—if the results are close in Massachusetts, imagine how close they'll be in, say, Nevada. Or Colorado. Or New York. Democratic morale will plummet. GOP donations will flood in. The renaissance will have begun. And Massachusetts will finally have an actual Republican.