Politics

12.04.13

Sen. Bob Smith: The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave

Long before the Tea Party, he embodied the GOP fringe—and now the ex-senator wants his old New Hampshire seat back. But state Republicans, pining for Scott Brown, aren’t so keen.

For the past several weeks, many New Hampshire Republicans, facing a weak stable of homegrown Senate candidates, have been praying for a certain ex-senator to swoop in from out of state and give Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen a real fight. Three days after Thanksgiving, a certain ex-senator, after much hemming and hawing, finally announced his intention to do precisely that.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong guy.

GOPers at both the state and national levels have been pining for former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, to bring his Cosmo-approved brand of sex appeal to the Granite State. Instead, what they have been promised (threatened with?) is the return of their own Bob Smith, a longtime Hill denizen who, during his last few years in the Senate, somehow managed to embody both the fringy extremism of the GOP’s conservative wing and the shameless opportunism of its establishment wing. In the process, he so alienated voters and members of his own party that he wound up losing his 2002 primary to John E. Sununu (the son, not the cranky dad). That may make the 72-year-old Smith, while not an especially promising candidate, a perfect distillation of today’s riven, identity crisis-plagued Republican Party.

First, a refresher course on Smith’s colorful CV: After three terms in the House, he ascended to the Senate in 1990. There he began shifting not so much toward the right end of the political spectrum as the nutty one. It wasn’t enough for Smith to be anti-abortion rights; the senator felt moved to take a pair of scissors to the head of a baby doll while on the Senate floor. Becoming deeply embroiled in the Elian Gonzalez soap opera, Smith raged that the then-6-year-old Cuban refugee was being “re-educated” in a “concentration camp on American soil”—i.e., the Wye River Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—and at one point tried to deliver an Easter basket to the boy while he was being housed at Andrews Air Force Base. Then there was Smith’s enduring conviction that significant numbers of American POWs were still languishing in Southeast Asia. “It was like a plot for a Rambo movie,” recalls Fergus Cullen, a former intern for Smith who went on to head the New Hampshire Republican Party in 2007 and 2008. Of his former boss, Cullen observes more broadly, “He continued to drift for several years from being a principled conservative to somebody who looked like he was taking on fringe causes and fringe issues, and doing so in a fringe manner.” In his 1996 reelection, Smith barely squeaked by Democratic challenger Richard Swett.

No matter: In 1999, Smith decided he was presidential material. His candidacy went nowhere. In response, Smith quit the party in a huff that July, trashing it as insufficiently principled on his way out the door. “He was very bitter,” says longtime Granite State Republican eminence and former state attorney general Tom Rath. “He said, ‘There are good Republicans and bad Republicans, and I’m the one who knows the difference.’”

“His exit from New Hampshire politics was probably something less than graceful—and that’s not a word you’d use about him anyway.”

Four weeks later, Smith announced that he would continue his Oval Office quest as standard-bearer for the right-wing Taxpayers Party, now the Constitution Party. One week after that, he shifted course yet again and said he would run as an independent. He continued to get zero traction. And so, a few months later, Smith announced he was leaving the race at last and that—oops!—all that party-hopping had been a terrible mistake and could he please return to the GOP fold and take over as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, a post recently vacated by the death of Sen. John Chafee.

Republicans let him back in—but they did not forget. In 2002, much of the GOP establishment lined up behind Sununu’s challenge to Smith. (“The only way the Republican Party was going to hold onto that seat was to take him out in a primary,” asserts Cullen, who was among those supporting “young Sununu.”) Shortly thereafter, Smith packed up his toys and moved to Florida, where he ran two more spectacularly unsuccessful campaigns for Senate in 2004 and 2010.

Flash forward to now, and it’s easy to grasp Republicans’ ambivalence over Smith’s announcement that he’s back. “His exit from New Hampshire politics was probably something less than graceful—and that’s not a word you’d use about him anyway,” says Rath. Cullen agrees, noting that, 12 years after Smith’s last campaign in the state, “the wounds and scars from the primary are still very much there. It’s hard to see Bob Smith being able to repair those relationships.”

Republicans speaking off the record are even harsher, describing Smith in terms like “joke” and “total clown.” Word around New Hampshire is that the former lawmaker is being urged to run by the same people who ran Newt Gingrich’s ill-fated presidential effort in the state—an effort Smith came up from Florida to help with in early 2012.  (Smith maintains a house in Tuftonboro—what he refers to as "the family compound"—where he spends several months each year.) “To the extent he was able to refresh any New Hampshire contacts, he would have done that then,” says Cullen. That said, following anything related to Newt’s Granite State “juggernaut,” quips another state strategist, “would not be a good business plan.”

Smith, unsurprisingly, sees things quite differently. Of his tumultuous past with the GOP, he explains to me, “What I did was leave for three or four months to give the message to my party that, if you sacrifice your principles, you will lose the credibility and ability to lead—which is exactly what happened!” As for leftover scars from his 2002 primary defeat, he insists, “I hold no grudges. What happened in 2002 happened. If others want to play back that and hold grudges, fine. I’m moving forward.”

And as far as his quirky, in-your-face style goes, Smith believes the political landscape is if anything more promising now than in the past, in large part thanks to the Tea Party. “Those folks need a channel,” he says of the movement. “They need to be able to go out and vote and say, ‘This guy represents what I believe in.”” Even beyond the Tea Party, Smith believes he can reach a disenchanted base that increasingly feels—as he does—that the country is moving in the wrong direction. “At this stage of my life, I’m hoping I can be a conduit to energize the base and then turn it over to the younger folks who are ready to step into the harness,” says Smith, who notes that firing up the grassroots has always been his strong suit.

Along the way, Smith expects to suffer plenty of criticism and snarking and personal attacks. “Leadership is a risky business,” he says philosophically. “I’m not worried about criticism. I have taken all the arrows I can in my back and some in my front. It doesn’t bother me one bit.”

In any case, he believes the costs are worth it and that, in the end, his 18-year conservative record in congress will speak for itself. “We all have our own case to make,” he says of the primary field. “We all have our own credentials.”

Even Smith’s critics acknowledge his potential appeal in these turbulent times. “He will find an audience,” predicts Cullen. “Whether that will be 50 percent of the primary vote is the question.”

For now, the immediate reaction to Smith’s announcement seems to be an even more urgent desire to get Scott Brown into the race. As I called around the state, more than one Republican pointed out hopefully that, just that morning, the party’s state committee had announced that Brown would be headlining its holiday fundraising reception on December 19. Meanwhile, multiple strategists theorized that Smith’s candidacy could ultimately wind up aiding Brown. As longtime Hill aide-turned-consultant Ron Bonjean put it to me, “Bob Smith’s running helps to mitigate the primary line of attack against Brown, which is the carpetbagging charge. If Scott Brown gets into the race, he has stronger recent ties to New Hampshire than Bob Smith does, because Smith has been living in Florida over the last 10 years.”

Now there’s a campaign slogan. Bob Smith: unbalanced, inconstant, and even more of a carpetbagger than the other guy.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a new interview with Bob Smith.