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The Not-So-Conservative Politics of Scott Brown

This post is somewhat in line with Sean’s post from Saturday, but, I think there can be a different reading of Scott Brown’s conservative pedigree or lack there of.

Boris Shor, an Assistant-Professor at the University of Chicago, has created a fascinating, and telling, break down of Scott Brown’s votes and political stances [1] in the Massachusetts legislature. Normally, I do not give much thought to the bare bones statistical analysis of politicians and their voting strategies. Statistics are good for a foundation of understanding, but ultimately, as Benjamin Disraeli said (I may be butchering this but this is to the best of my recollection):

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I’m skeptical. After several courses on political and statistical analysis, one develops the sense that numbers are just fun little tools to make lies into truths. But enough of my curmudgeonry towards the mathematics. What Shor has compiled, and revealed is really incredible, but also, the conclusion is extremely important for how conservative activists should approach candidates in the future. Shor states:

Brown is attracting very positive national and state Republican and conservative attention. On the other hand, State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava attracted very negative attention from conservatives in her special election [2] campaign for the 23rd Congressional District of New York.

Brown is actually a liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of Dede Scozzafava! So why, then, the enthusiasm gap in support for the two? This post documents this assertion, and then answers this puzzle.

Shor continues:

Citing my ongoing research on ideology in state legislatures in an earlier blog post [3], I made some waves [4] by arguing that Scozzafava was actually a conservative Republican in a particular context. That context was the New York State legislature, where Republicans are exceedingly liberal relative to the rest of the country. In fact, she was actually located slightly to the right of the average Republican in the legislature. Despite this, there was a firestorm of opposition to her, leading to an insurgent challenge by Doug Hoffman under the Conservative Party label and her subsequent withdrawal from the campaign.

And in regards to Brown:

Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!

Shor’s research shows us that even compared to Dede Scozzafava, Scott Brown is a very liberal Republican. But, like almost every aspect of statistics, there is a caveat, a very very important caveat. Despite being very liberal in his politics, Brown, when taking into account the the ideological ratings of Democrats in Massachusetts, is actual very moderate, not a stalwart conservative still, but for the people of Massachusetts, a palatable centrist who has a very good chance of winning a U.S. Senate election against a very liberal Democrat, Martha Coakley. Shor similarly states :

In other words, what began as a puzzle turns out not to be much of oneat all. It makes perfect sense that Scott Brown, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, has attracted Republican and conservative support. He’s perfectly suited for his liberal state electorate [emphasis added]. Dede Scozzafava, in fact considerably more conservative than Scott Brown was not nearly so well matched to her intended constituency, the relatively conservative 23rd District that had returned moderate conservative John McHugh since the 1992 election.

What this shows, however, is that the conservative base in the United States, far from dragging their party moblike into an unelectable extreme [5], has made the decentralized decision to support the realistically best candidate they can relative to the context in which he’s being elected. The 23rd special district election can also be seen in this light; throwing Scozzafava overboard made far more sense in the context of that electorate.

Supporting Brown in Massachusetts or Hoffman in New York really just models a basic prisoners dilemma. We must simply go with the most conservative candidate offered, that remains electorally competative. Brown is more conservative than Coakley, Hoffman was more conservative than Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens. In the case of Massachusetts, the electorate is liberal (unlike the NY-23), and conservatives have rightly understood that the likely hood of a conservative winning in the mold of the late Senators Taft or Goldwater just is not going to happen. The seat belongs to Massachusetts, not Washington D.C., not out of state conservative activists, and definitely not the Kennedy’s.

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#1 Comment By Jeremiah Whitmoore On January 18, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

Scott Brown is Mitt Romney from 10 years ago.

#2 Comment By Sean Scallon On January 19, 2010 @ 8:22 am

Exactly. Tea Partiers are supposed to be fired up about electing a middle-of-roader in a liberal Massachusetts GOP caucus.

So when do we start calling Brown a RINO?

#3 Comment By MattSwartz On January 19, 2010 @ 8:40 am

Coakley will win in a close race. Remember that in American politics, anything approaching a tie goes to the party who controls the Secretary of State’s office.

Brown isn’t a great candidate, but I’d be tempted to vote for him just to take a shot at the machine.

#4 Comment By William Upton On January 19, 2010 @ 9:32 am


Though Brown is not Tea Party material, think subliminally, conservatives and GOP types all understand that electing a true conservative in Massachusetts is going to be difficult. I do not think we will be hearing Brown called a RINO anytime soon, because by all standards in Massachusetts, he is not a RINO. Hopefully the Tea Partiers and GOP folks will understand this, Shor makes the argument very clear in his article. Time will tell but, my money is on Brown, serving out the remainder of the term (if he wins) then probably lose re-election in his next cycle. I just do not see him being in office long enough to be branded a RINO anyways.

#5 Comment By Anonymous On January 19, 2010 @ 10:08 am

Let me get right to the point: From what I can tell, Scott Brown is nowhere near as liberal as Dede Scozzafava.

As a New Yorker, I am not as familiar with Brown as I am with Scozzafava, but I have uncovered a few facts about him. Brown is opposed to Obamacare, supports some restrictions on abortion, has voted for an opposite-sex definition of marriage, and is opposed to the anti-freedom card check legislation. Brown supports emergency contraception, but tried (and failed) to add language to an emergency contraception bill that would have provided conscience protections for medical personnel. For a Republican, Brown has received fairly high marks from organized labor and from environmental groups during his State Senate career. Scott Brown’s positions on these issues make him a moderate Republican.

Dede Scozzafava is not a moderate Republican. Dede Scozzafava is wishy-washy on Obamacare and wishy-washy on a public option in Obamacare. She supports taxpayer funding of abortion via Obamacare. She has received an award from a Planned Parenthood affiliate. I am unaware of any restrictions or limitations on abortion that she would support. She supports card check, and I would assume that her union-boss husband does as well. She has voted for same-sex marriage three times and has also voted for medical marijuana legislation. She supported the 2009 Obama stimulus package. Aside from some vestiges of conservatism on issues like guns and the environment, Dede Scozzafava is a liberal. Her positions on many of these issues would not only place her to the left of every Republican member of Congress, but also to the left of many Blue Dog Democrats. Conservative New Yorkers like me opposed her because of her liberal record and values. A moderate is not the same thing as a liberal.

#6 Comment By Red Phillips On January 19, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

It is true that the national conservatives who are supporting Brown are aware of the political climate in Mass and therefore do not demand as much from him. They are also craving very badly that 41st vote. But there is more to it than that. Brown has made nice to national conservatives. Scozzafava deliberately dissed and distanced herself from national Republicans and conservatives. So Scozzafava felt more like a RINO rhetorically than does Brown even if they are pretty close on the issues.

The independent “TEA Party candidate,” Joe Kennedy, would be getting more play if the election wasn’t so tight and the stakes so high.

#7 Comment By Sean Scallon On January 19, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

It should have been Kennedy who was the Tea Party candidate, not a GOP hack Brown. If he was, we would all be having a hell of a time today. Instead, if Brown wins, it will be the triumph of Mitt Romneyism.

#8 Comment By Jack Tracey On January 19, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

RINO? Yes, but he’s our RINO (if he votes against Obamacare).

“…anything approaching a tie goes to the party who controls the Secretary of State’s office.” Truly, Al Franken was a very funny comedian.

Romneyism? I’m still not sure what to make of that guy.

#9 Pingback By Brown or Kennedy for Massachusetts Senate? | Conservative Heritage Times On January 19, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

[…] over Brown that national Republicans and conservatives are doing is that Brown is really a RINO. He is not that different on the issues from Dede Scozzafava whom national Conservatives trashed. He is overtly pro-choice and pro-gay marriage by […]

#10 Pingback By Scott Brown vs Martha Coakley: A Media Bias Freak Show, by Ron Jones On January 19, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

[…] may be that the not-so-conservative Scott Brown, unelectable in any state south of the Mason Dixon line is the perfect republican candidate in a […]

#11 Pingback By Senate Showdown: Martha Coakley Vs. Scott Brown On January 19, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

[…] Scott Brown: The American Conservative writer William Upton talks about whether to agree with statistics that Scott Brown is more liberal than the other Massachusetts Republicans, who are considered to be the most liberal in the country. […]

#12 Comment By John T. On January 19, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

Sean Scallon, be realistic. Kennedy probably wasn’t electable. Brown is.

#13 Pingback By Grading Brown on a Curve » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog On January 20, 2010 @ 6:55 am

[…] as does the fact that Brown’s win will likely stop the advance of Obamacare. It could be, as William Upton at The American Conservative, explains, simply a rational application of game theory: Supporting Brown […]

#14 Trackback By Villainous Company On January 20, 2010 @ 6:57 am

Dennis the Peasant Nails It…

Frodo asked what we thought about Scott Brown’s victory. I haven’t written about his candidacy because frankly, although I very much wanted him to win, I was having trouble biting back the snark. I think it’s great that he did……

#15 Comment By MattSwartz On January 20, 2010 @ 7:49 am

I am not very good at predictions; I really thought that race would go the other way. The Dems seemed to have completely exhausted their appeal to working-class voters, which makes sense, since a universal insurance mandate would put many of us in the poorhouse.

#16 Comment By OnMyHonor On February 9, 2010 @ 4:14 am

The thing I loved about Scott Brown’s election was it reaffirmed that the American people, given enough information, will self correct when we go too far. It was reminiscent of the Carter -> Reagan transition. Read what Publius (Madison) said about it in Federalist 55.

#17 Pingback By – Macsmind – Home of the MacRanger Show On February 22, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

[…] he had to throw the bone to the independents and moderate democrats who elected him. Last month American Conservative had a piece on Brown with this scathing comparison: ” compared to Dede Scozzafava, Scott […]

#18 Comment By Paul On February 24, 2010 @ 1:21 am

Scott votes to end Republican filibuster on popular jobs bill, conservatives begin attacking him as a RINO. Well, that didn’t take long.