Scott Brown’s much anticipated Granite State brawl with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has turned out to be more of a Granite State bust.
The former Massachusetts senator is still the most competitive Republican in the New Hampshire race. But polling has shown Shaheen holding a consistent single-digit lead and posting strong approval ratings from voters in the state even as races in similar blue-leaning battleground states have tightened in the GOP’s favor.
In nearly every poll, New Hampshire voters are at best split on how they feel about him, and in some cases view him more negatively than positively. A WMUR-UNH poll out in early July showed him underwater by about nine points; an NBC-Marist poll out last week showed voters split, with about 40 percent each viewing him positively and negatively.
It’s a situation, said one New Hampshire GOP strategist who has worked on federal and national races there, that should have the Brown campaign worried.
“I would be concerned if I was them,” the strategist said, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “You don’t ever want to be underwater at this point in a race.”
Brown’s talent for retail campaigning and personal popularity helped drive him to an unexpected Massachusetts special election win in 2010, and then helped him outrun the top of the Republican ticket in 2012 and bring his contest with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) down to single digits. Even though he lost, Brown was actually more popular than Warren in a number of late surveys.
The strategist said that his everyman appeal is a main part of what “makes him a contender here” in New Hampshire, and that he’ll need to work to regain it.
“He needs to rekindle some of what made people like him so much, that common man theme that made him so popular when he ran the first time. And I think some of the magic is lost,” the strategist said.
Democrats haven’t made the carpetbagger label their primary attack, but they never miss a chance to reference Brown’s tenure in Massachusetts. And that perception hasn’t been helped by times when Brown’s misspoken and appeared to forget he’s no longer in the Bay State.
Jamie Burnett, who was campaign manager for then-Sen. John E. Sununu’s failed 2008 reelection fight with Shaheen, said the early Democratic offense that did highlight his Massachusetts ties seems to have taken a toll on Brown.
“Given the nature of his candidacy, having come here from Massachusetts — that gave Democrats in the state an unusual but probably beneficial line of attack early on, and I think that probably hurt him early on,” he said.
He said part of the issue for Brown was that Democrats came out so early on offense against him, running ads knocking him on his oil industry and Wall Street support even before he entered the race.
“[Shaheen] can’t run on her record, because her record’s not popular. Democrats have to run on other things — and other things are oftentimes character assassination,” Burnett added.
But even Brown’s supporters admit he’s had to take the time to introduce himself to the state. Jim Merrill, a former adviser to Mitt Romney's New Hampshire campaign and a Brown supporter, said that effort is underway.
“We’re in the process of getting to know him here. He’s still relatively new to New Hampshire,” he said.
Brown is clearly aware of this issue.
He’s spent the better part of his first few months on the trail trying to build an endearing personal narrative for himself, emphasizing his New Hampshire ties at every opportunity.
In his kickoff speech, Brown mentioned memories from his childhood spent in New Hampshire with his grandparents. His first ad featured the candidate driving around the state in his iconic pickup truck, and in another, his sister told viewers of their difficult childhood, when she said Brown “was there to protect me and my mom” against abuse at home.
Known for his social media savvy, Brown recently took to Instagram to congratulate his daughter on her wedding and share a shot of him and his wife on their own wedding day, and his staff shared details of the wedding with reporters — which featured their dog in a tuxedo and a groom who formerly interned in Brown’s office.
But despite this charm offensive, Brown’s numbers haven’t moved.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, noted that part of Brown’s popularity problem likely comes from Republicans dissatisfied with his record as a centrist senator from Massachusetts.
“He does have a difficulty in that he is far less popular among Republicans than he is among Democrats,” he said.
And while Shaheen largely stays positive, Brown has had to find ways to navigate a handful of difficult political issues that could cause him trouble with the GOP base, as he fends off two primary challengers, former state Sen. Jim Rubens and former Sen. Bob Smith.
Most recently, he drew negative headlines after running into the bathroom at a campaign stop to avoid a reporter looking to ask questions on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision — an issue that could cause him grief with female voters in the general election, just as the contraception debate damaged him with that voting bloc during his 2012 race.
Multiple New Hampshire Republicans privately admitted, as one put it, that GOP voters are “not in love with the guy.” One strategist who’s worked with conservative candidates in the state and elsewhere said his Massachusetts record was certainly a sticking point.
“It certainly doesn’t help him any that he has a voting record as a senator from Massachusetts that a lot of voters in New Hampshire might not agree with,” the strategist said.
Still, a half-dozen Republicans in the state, both supportive and skeptical of Brown, said it’s far too early to handicap the race, as most voters haven’t yet tuned in to this fall’s politics.
Ryan Williams, a top advisor to Brown’s campaign, noted that new Hampshire races tend to shift, and they expect the polls to tighten after the GOP primary in September, one of the latest in the nation.
“New Hampshire always breaks late,” said Williams. “The numbers tend to move very quickly at the end of the campaign. And look, Scott has been working hard to introduce himself to the state, and people want him to do that.”
But Republicans are still optimistic about their chances because, as former NH GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen said, the climate is tough for Democrats this cycle.
“The problems with the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act make Jeanne as vulnerable as any Democrat out there,” said Cullen.