WASHINGTON D.C. -– When state Sen. Scott Brown became U.S. Sen. Scott Brown earlier this month, stunned and wrathful Democrats in Massachusetts questioned how long before Brown would fall into line with the national Republican Party leadershi and whether his self-proclaimed independence from partisan strictures would stand up to a GOP hierarchy known for dealing harshly with dissidents.
It had, after all, happened before to a Bay State Republican. Bill Weld, then governor of the Commonwealth, stepped too far to the left of South Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, and Helms slapped down Weld’s hopes of becoming ambassador to Mexico. The populist Tea Party movement has spooked some Republicans into more aggressively distancing themselves from the center, wary they could pay a price for appearing supportive of President Barack Obama and Washington Democrats.
And Brown enters the national scene at a time of intense partisanship – health care, fiscal policy, Afghanistan engendering divisions between and within the parties.
Still, governors from Brown’s own party say the Massachusetts rookie has a novel opportunity to range from the leash a bit, because of the campaign message he pushed, the state he represents, and the breathing room encouraged by his vote’s pivotal nature. Brown, the Republican CEOs said, has room to operate.
“I think party leaders are respectful of the regional differences,” said Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican and chair of the National Governors Association. “I don’t know the senator personally, but I assume he was elected because he has the intelligence and integrity to represent his constituents and do what he thinks is in the national interest. I don’t think party leaders expect blind loyalty from him. They expect a cooperative spirit and a willingness to work across the aisle.”
Douglas said, “I think Sen. Brown’s election is an opportunity to force the two parties to come together and find some common ground.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and former head of the party’s national committee, said Brown would likely not pay a price with party leaders even if he repeatedly sides with Democrats. In part, said Barbour, Brown’s new Senate colleagues would likely recognize that Brown simply deviates from core party norms on some philosophical issues. The Wrentham Republican has, for instance, prompted some buyer’s remorse from pro-life groups dissatisfied with his reluctance to tinker with Roe v. Wade.
“I think the answer to that’s no, that people who serve with him know that he’s not as conservative as some of them are,” Barbour, eyed as a prospective 2012 presidential candidate, said when asked if Brown would suffer for bucking the party line.
“In a two-party system, both parties are necessarily coalitions,” Barbour told the News Service. “There are lots of Republicans who are not as conservative as Haley Barbour. He should vote for what he thinks is right in the big picture.”
Another prospective 2012 challenger, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who vied over the weekend for conservative affections at the Conservative Political Action Conference, also in Washington, was vaguer about whether Brown would be disciplined by party barons for committing apostasies.
“I think each elected official has to make his or her own decisions, so that’s something you’ll have to ask him and the congressional leadership,” Pawlenty said.
Pressure to meet expectations will come not just from the right. Progressive interest groups challenged Brown Monday with an ad questioning his independence, trying to spot him on a Senate jobs bill vote, featuring clips from his election night speech when he touted “the independent voice of Massachusetts.”
Unions, whose rank-and-file helped Brown wrest a long-Democratic seat, have already ripped Brown for opposing one of President Barack Obama’s labor nominees.
GOP strategists said Brown’s instant-celebrity status, overcoming off-the-board odds to win the seat, had brought him some inoculation from usual top-down, fealty-assuring tactics, and said his status as “41,” the vote ensuring Republicans could block an unpopular health care bill, had purchased even more protection – rendering him, for the time being, untouchable.
Brown’s Democratic home-state governor, Deval Patrick, said he was interested to see how Brown would interact with national Republicans. “If Scott does what he said he is going to do, we’ll be fine,” Patrick said.