04.12.10

Scott Brown's Hilarious Dance With the Tea Party

Sarah Palin is bringing her biggest fans to Massachusetts. Why the U.S. senator the Tea Party elected is blowing them off.

Sarah Palin travels to Boston on Wednesday, riding along with fellow travelers aboard the Tea Party Express. She will stand in Boston Common and, if Palin’s penchant for symbolism holds, wave an ink-covered palm toward the harbor where America’s first Tea Party was celebrated. But there’s one reveler who will be curiously absent: Scott Brown, the U.S. senator the Tea Party put into office in February.

Brown will be staying in Washington while the Senate is in session, a spokesman tells The Daily Beast. His absence is the latest sign of the balancing act the Republican must perform on what remains an unsettled political landscape. Brown has to flatter the Tea Party, which provided thousands of dollars and volunteers to get him elected. At the same time, he has to maintain a photographic distance from Palin and the cheering hordes.

Having been adopted by the national party and by the tea party, can Brown remain the favorite son for both?

It’s a question that will confront the GOP at every turn between now and November’s midterm elections, but the challenge is perhaps best personified by Brown, who won’t have to face  voters until 2012. Having been adopted by the national party and by the Tea Party, can Brown remain the favorite son for both?

Since his election three months ago, Brown has had a hot and cold relationship with Palin, the Tea Party’s spiritual leader. On Election Night, Palin called the newly minted senator to congratulate him on his victory. She touted Brown’s “underdog campaign” on her Facebook page. But nine days after the election, Brown told reporters, “I don’t know Sarah Palin. I’ve never spoken with her. She’s never reached out, vice versa.” (A Brown campaign spokesman later said that the call with the party’s biggest star “had completely slipped his mind.”)

Keeping Palin at arm’s length during the campaign was a savvy move, said Republican strategist Todd Domke.

“She was not here for Scott Brown, which was a deliberate sign that she would not have helped him. Those who supported Sarah Palin were for him, anyway,” Domke says.

So it went in Massachusetts as well, where Brown leaned on local Tea Party members and then seemed to forget their existence. Back on January 2, more than a week before a Rasmussen Poll would have Brown within striking distance of his opponent Martha Coakley, members of the Greater Boston Tea Party were invited to a breakfast for the Republican, netting him $12,000. A few days later, Brown was portrayed in a Boston Globe story as being completely unaware of the movement. Asked about the Tea Party, Brown replied, “I am not quite sure what you are talking about, what are they trying to do?” (Other journalists said the quote was taken out of context.)

Palin and Brown have one point of agreement: John McCain. Both went out to campaign for the Arizona senator who is facing an insurgent primary challenge from Phoenix radio personality J.D. Hayworth. When Brown stumped for McCain in March, one of the senator’s advisers told me that his trip was all about loyalty. Back in December, when Brown was a little-known state senator fighting for the GOP nomination, he paid a visit to D.C. where McCain was “the only person who would welcome him with open arms,” Ron Kaufman, the adviser, said. McCain was the one who connected Brown to Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and put the candidate on the GOP’s radar.

The Tea Party rally in Boston offers another test of loyalty, and this time Brown is taking a pass. During the final two weeks of Brown’s campaign, Tea Party Express, which is run by Republican operatives, donated nearly $350,000—a small percentage of Brown’s total campaign haul of $15 million. Still, it’s a significant sum to come from an organization unaffiliated with the national party. And Brown will likely need $20 million to $25 million for his reelection campaign in 2012, much of which will have to come from out-of-state Tea Partiers and conservatives.

But if Brown is hesitant to fully embrace the Tea Party, the Tea Party Express has had no qualms in crowing about him. In Michigan this week, where Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak announced his retirement, members once again saw the specter of Scott Brown and the success of its own machinations.

“Just as Scott Brown was propelled to victory in the U.S. Senate thanks to the Tea Party movement, now Bart Stupak appears to have succumbed to the movement’s strength as well,” the group said in a statement.

Tea Party Express officials didn’t return multiple requests for comment, but the group’s chairman Mark Williams told the Boston Herald Monday that he didn’t feel dissed by Brown’s decision to stay clear of their rally.

“It’s not about paying favors back,” Mark Williams told the tabloid.

Interestingly, Boston Tea Party members were making the same cautious noises as Brown. Bridget Fay, who is a member of the Greater Boston Tea Party’s steering committee, says she takes a pragmatic view when it comes to Brown’s relationship with national Tea Party groups. She admits that Palin’s visit “is not a perfect scenario” for Brown or for her Tea Party. More than once in a conversation last week, Fay spoke of her group’s efforts to “keep the crazies out” of their affairs.

“There is a tension between what Tea Party groups around the country think and what we do in Massachusetts,” says Fay.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.