When Scott Brown was elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts in a special election last year, Republicans rejoiced. They had wrested the Senate seat held by the late liberal icon Edward Kennedy in a Democratic stronghold.
Brown remains quite popular at home. But as he faces the voters again in 2012, will that matter?
The saga of former Sen. Lincoln Chafee in neighboring Rhode Island offers a cautionary tale. Another much-liked moderate Republican, Chafee lost his bid for re-election in 2006 for a very simple, one-letter reason -- the "R" after his name. The Republican brand was much fallen back then, and the state's Democratic electorate made a strategic decision: The balance in the Senate was so close that a Chafee victory could have kept majority control in Republican hands. It instead chose Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, and yes, Democrats took the majority by one seat. Chafee turned independent and is now Rhode Island governor.
After the recent debt-ceiling chaos, the GOP leadership is looking especially toxic. And "control" of the Senate is again up for grabs. Do Massachusetts voters want to wake up on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, knowing that they just made Kentucky's Mitch McConnell senate majority leader? Probably not.
Meanwhile, Brown's stars won't be as favorably aligned as they were in 2010. Back then, the burning national issue was the bill guaranteeing medical coverage -- something that Massachusetts voters definitely wanted but already had through their state program. Thus, Brown had the luxury of running as "the 51st vote against Obamacare."
Brown also had the good fortune of facing off against state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who insulted the electorate by barely campaigning. This time, his Democratic foe may very well be Elizabeth Warren, heroine of consumer protection. Warren's style may not travel well in regulation-averse parts of the country, but Massachusetts is not regulation-averse.
Another complication will be the Republican pick for president. If it's former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, architect of the state's popular health care plan, Brown may be OK. If it's Texas Gov. Rick Perry, not so OK.
Perry's blowharding about Texan superiority doesn't go over great in a state that could be called the "anti-Texas" culturally -- and, economically, happens to be doing better.
Comparing states with wildly different populations, climates, natural resources and histories is generally pointless, but since Perry insists, let's continue. The unemployment rate in Texas, now 8.4 percent, is lower than the nation's 9.1 percent, but higher than the Bay State's 7.6 percent. And while the Texas economy grew 2.8 percent in 2010, the Massachusetts gross domestic product jumped 4.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Perry has predictably bashed "Romneycare," the model for the national plan. "Now, we in Texas are not too excited about the prospect of government-run anything, much less health care," Perry said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
But in Massachusetts, "Romneycare" gains support with every passing year. Now 63 percent of residents back it, with just 21 percent against, according to a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Globe. The government-run plan certainly didn't hurt the Massachusetts economy, and may have helped by creating a more orderly health care system.
So here's the bottom line: In low-tax, low-service, low-regulation Texas, over 26 percent of the people are uninsured, the highest percentage in America. In high-tax, high-service, highly regulated Massachusetts, health coverage is near universal, and the state still beats Texas in economic growth and employment.
How Scott Brown separates himself from a national party that has largely abandoned moderation -- and regard for Northeast sensibilities -- will be interesting to watch. Clearly, he'll have a race on his hands.