BOSTON — He was dubbed “Sen. 41” two years ago when he arrived on Capitol Hill with a head of steam — the Republican firewall against President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda.
But these days, Scott Brown seems to want a different nickname as he launches an uphill climb to keep a seat crucial to Republican chances of winning the Senate in November: “Sen. Bipartisan.”
“I’m the most bipartisan person by far in the delegation,” he boasted to local TV cameras here at this city’s convention center. “I think I’m one of the — if not the most [bipartisan] — in the entire United States Senate.”
It’s a far cry from the heady days of 2010, when Republican voters, tea party activists and independents shocked the political world and made Brown the first Massachusetts Republican in 56 years to win that seat — denying Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the aftermath of the Senate’s Christmas Eve passage of health care legislation.
But in 2012, Brown is an incumbent in a deeply unpopular Congress, facing a Democratic challenger who is leading him in the polls — all during a presidential election year in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
So the question now dominating political discussions in the Bay State is this: Was 2010 just a fluke for Brown?
“He’s an incumbent now, he has a record to stand on,” said Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general who lost to Brown. “An open seat, which is what that was, is different than the seat where you’re an incumbent. … I think all the dynamics are going to be different.”
Brown’s survival strategy has taken him to all corners of the state, where he drops into mom and pop shops, Boys and Girls clubs, ski resorts and even Democratic bastions, like an American Legion post in nearby Mattapan packed with middle-class African-American voters. He says he’s worked as a bipartisan “problem solver” in the Senate and not a “self-proclaimed rock thrower,” a dig at his likely Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren.
In a state where nearly 52 percent of the state’s 4.2 million voters are independents, Brown believes he can tap into what he calls the “independent spirit” here by claiming he’s the only candidate who can rise above Washington’s partisan fray. In the Senate, Brown is seen as a swing vote, siding with Republicans against tax hikes on the wealthy but backing Obama on several major issues, like repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
“If push came to shove, I could see myself voting for him,” said 68-year-old David Cunningham, a Civil War re-enactor who shoots muskets at New England Patriots games and who voted for Coakley in 2010.
Even at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast before hundreds of activists and church-goers where politicians commemorated the life of the civil rights icon, Brown couldn’t help but talk about bipartisanship.
“I say we certainly can use someone like that now, especially down in Washington as you see the divide of not only political parties but groups that just don’t seem to get along,” he said solemnly in his MLK tribute.
Warren sat at the back of the banquet hall, clapping politely, before making the rounds with voters there. The two didn’t cross paths.
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This story first ran in Politico on January 18, 2012.