Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) stunned the American political scene by announcing that he would not run in the special election to succeed John Kerry, who resigned his U.S. Senate seat to become Secretary of State. Brown was a rare Republican who was able to win a seat in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. He struck lighting in a political bottle, winning a special election against a feckless and gaffe-prone Democratic opponent.
In 2012, as the political universe reestablished its natural equilibrium, Brown lost his reelection bid. While the moderate Republican remains personally popular in Massachusetts, Brown could not overcome the argument that a vote for Brown was a vote to keep the unpopular Republican Party in control of the U.S. Senate. Brown’s Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, ran as much against Brown as she ran against a potential Republican take-over of the U.S. Senate. In a debate, Warren admonished that a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate would mean that conservative “Jim Inhofe [U.S. Senator from Oklahoma] would become the person who would be in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s a man that has called global warming a hoax.”
It has become increasingly hard for moderate Republicans to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Democratic states. Correspondingly, it is also increasingly difficult for moderate Democrats to be elected in Republican states. This is due primarily to the fact that control of the U.S. Senate could hang in the balance.
Brown would be better off politically to seek the Massachusetts governorship in 2014. In many ways, the Republican label can actually be an asset to a republican candidate running for governor in Massachusetts. Ronald Reagan was the only Republican to carry the Bay State in a presidential election since 1956, yet the state had all Republican governors from 1991-2007. During that same time period, only two Republicans were elected to serve in the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, and both Republicans were extremely fortunate to be running against an incumbent Democrat inveleped in scandal. Both Republicans were defeated after only two terms in Congress.
Republicans have employed a winning political formula at the gubernatorial level in Massachusetts by running as moderates who if elected would act as a check on the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature. They won with the support of Republicans, Independents and even some Democrats who would vote a split ticket between a Republican governor and a Democratic candidate for the state legislature. In 2002, Republican Mitt Romney won the Massachusetts governorship by campaigning against one-party rule. He would hit the hustings with large posters of House Speaker Tom Finneran and the expected-to-be-Senate-President Robert Travaglini, as well as Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Shannon O’Brien. Romney warned that the three Democrats would constitute a “single-party monopoly.” For her part, O’Brien was unable to justify why one political party should control all the levers of power in the Bay State.
Massachusetts is not the only Democratic state to be hospitable to Republican gubernatorial nominees. Rhode Island had all Republican governors from 1995-2011, despite having a Republican registration in the state of only about 10 percent. The same formula employed by Massachusetts Republicans in capturing the governorship works in Rhode Island as well.
On the contrary, the three most Republican states in the nation have elected many Democratic governors. Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming have voted for a Democratic presidential nominee only once since 1952 (Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 landslide). Each of these states has supermajorities in their Legislatures, and outside of the governorship, the state Democratic Party is near dormant. Yet they have a record of electing Democratic governors. Utah had only Democratic governors from 1965-1985. The longest serving governor in Idaho history is Democrat Cecil Dale Andrus, who served from 1971-1977 and from 1987-1995. Wyoming had Democratic governors for all but eight years during the time-period of 1975-2011. Democrat David Freudenthal was reelected in 2006 with a staggering 70 percent of the vote.
In these aforementioned cases, the gubernatorial candidates presented themselves as the only counterweight to a single party holding a monopoly on the levers of power.
Ironically, most of these minority-party governors have been rewarded with stratospheric job approval ratings. However, they tend to run into trouble when they venture into national politics. For example, Republican William Weld was reelected as governor of Massachusetts in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote in a state where less than 15 percent of voters were registered Republicans. However, when he ran for the U.S. Senate just two years later, Democrat John Kerry handily defeated Weld. Kerry ran as much against the popular Weld as he did against the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Voters liked Weld as governor precisely because he acted as a check on the Democratic state legislature. However, they would not elect a Republican to the U.S. Senate, as that would be aiding and abetting the unpopular Republican Congress.
Alternatively, Democrat Tony Knowles served two terms as Alaska governor, a state that has voted for the Republican Presidential nominee only once since its entrance into the Union. He was reelected in 1998 by over 30 points, yet lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 2004. In the case of both Weld and Knowles, voters were saying “Nothing personal: It’s just business.”
No matter how moderate his voting record, if Brown were to run again for the U.S. Senate, he would be acutely vulnerable. The Democrats would recruit a formidable nominee who would run not so much against Brown, but against Republican control of the U.S. Senate. As a U.S. Senate candidate, Brown is in a no-win situation. By contrast, as a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Brown has the upper-hand politically. He can put the Democratic nominee on the defensive by asking why one party should control all of the levers of power. Only the most doctrinaire Democrats would want one party to have that much power in the state.
It is ironic that Democrats in Republican states, and Republicans in Democratic states, are actually at an advantage when it comes to the governorship. Absent the baggage of Congressional Republicans, Scott Brown, with a personal approval rating of near 60 percent, could be a serious prospect for the Democrats to have to contend with.