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Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown was the Tea Party’s darling after he won Ted Kennedy’s seat in a 2010 upset. Seeking re-election in the Democratic-leaning state, Brown now is running as a centrist who splits with his party.
Back home at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown this month, he touted new laws he sponsored to help small companies get start-up funds and to strengthen the insider-trading ban for lawmakers. Brown boasted to a Boston business group that only one Republican senator votes against the party more often than he does.
“I’m the second-most bipartisan senator in the United States Senate, maybe the first by a half a point depending on the week,” he told members of the New England Council, alluding to Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
In a contest that will help decide control of the Senate that Democrats now govern 53-47, Brown is trying to show he has set his own path two years after beating Democrat Martha Coakley to finish the late Kennedy’s term. Now he’s running against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor and architect of President Barack Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
While a voting record can be an incumbent’s albatross, political analysts say Brown has the benefit of a short one.
“What he’s doing is picking and choosing his battles,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which has polled in the race. “He’s stayed largely out of the limelight and when he’s noticeable, he’s usually not on the controversial side of an issue.”
Brown, 52, has split with his party on votes including a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military, and to advance Richard Cordray’s nomination to lead the consumer bureau. He also has worked to boost ethics rules and oversight of government agencies.
Warren campaign adviser Doug Rubin said Brown cast plenty of votes that most Massachusetts residents will find objectionable, including to preserve oil company tax subsidies and to let employers deny insurance coverage for birth control if it violates their religious beliefs. He opposed some elements of Obama’s $447 billion jobs proposal in 2011.
Brown will have another test soon on a Democratic bill to make it easier to win pay-discrimination lawsuits. Brown opposed it in 2010 and might alienate some female voters if he votes with Republicans again.
John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said while Brown is trying to be an independent “bobbing his way through” tough votes, he doesn’t support jobs and other domestic programs enough to be someone who state voters “can count on to vote in their interests.”
Walsh said Brown will be hampered by his place on the ballot with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who lags behind Obama in polls in the state.
“Scott Brown is part of the national Republican agenda and that’s going to be a very hard thing for him here in Massachusetts,” Walsh said.
Campaigning last month, Warren, 62, highlighted Brown’s opposition to the health-care overhaul. Brown supported a 2010 financial services law only after securing a provision exempting Massachusetts companies from part of it, she said.
“Are you there for families, or are you there for the richest and most powerful banks in the entire world?” she said April 29 at the opening of a campaign office in Acton. “Scott Brown’s on one side, I’m on the other.”
While the senator fulfilled his campaign promise to vote against the health-care law, he made an early show of independence. In his third Senate vote, he sided with Democrats on a $15 billion jobs bill endorsed by Obama. He was branded a turncoat by conservative bloggers, though he drew praise from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald editorial boards.
Brown has set himself apart in other debates. During the 2011 budget fight that almost led to a federal government shutdown, he called for compromise on funding for Planned Parenthood after House Republicans pushed to eliminate it.
Brown focuses on issues on which both parties tend to agree. On the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Brown works with centrist Chairman Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Collins, its top Republican. The three lawmakers introduced a bill to overhaul the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, which passed the Senate last month.
Polls show that voters are responding to the senator’s message. In a March 21-27 Boston Globe poll of 544 likely Massachusetts voters, 49 percent said Brown would be better able to work with the opposite party, while 27 percent said that about Warren. Sixty-three percent of independent voters viewed him favorably, to her 33 percent.
Some critics say Brown’s agenda is too politically bland to motivate voters, and that he’ll need more than good-governance bills to survive in a state Obama carried by 62 percent in 2008.
“They’re low-hanging fruit that may not drive the kinds of votes that Senator Brown will need for what is already a neck-and-neck race for re-election,” said Stephen Crawford, spokesman for Rethink PAC, a super-PAC set up by labor unions to help defeat Brown.
Brown is moderating his record. In the 2009-2010 session he voted with his party 81 percent of the time, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. This session, Brown has voted with Republicans 70 percent of the time.
Brown stood next to Obama twice in April as the president signed bills he co-sponsored. One stiffens the ban on insider trading by lawmakers and federal employees, and the other lets small businesses seek early capital investors on the Internet.
“Standing next to President Obama for the second bill signing in as many days is proof of what is possible when we work together,” Brown said in a statement.
Where he has taken risks by voting with his party, sometimes there is the potential for benefits. Brown’s vote March 1 to let employers refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives risks alienating women, while it may have some appeal to Catholic voters in Massachusetts.
Before that vote, he added his name to a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. On March 23, Brown and his sister toured a shelter for domestic-violence victims in Framingham to discuss the bill and the abuse he says he suffered as a child from his stepfather.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said Warren will have trouble turning Brown’s record into a campaign issue.
“He’s making himself into a bipartisan brand through legislative policy,” said Bonjean, once an aide to former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Some in the Tea Party have forgiven Brown’s centrist actions. FreedomWorks, the Tea Party group running attack ads against incumbent Republicans it says aren’t conservative enough, will probably help Brown get out the vote, said Russ Walker, the group’s national political director.
“A lot of people in the Tea Party movement have been disappointed with him, but his positions were pretty well known,” Walker said. “The one issue Tea Partiers cared about was Obama-care. He said he’d vote against it, and he did.”
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