WASHINGTON -- Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) may be breaking away from his Tea Party supporters who poured blood, sweat and tears into getting him into office in January, but many observers believe that this is exactly what he needs to do in order to be reelected in one of the bluest states in the country.
Last week, Brown distanced himself from the majority of his party and expressed an openness to overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), the military's ban on gays and lesbians serving openly.
"I accept the findings of the report and support repeal based on the Secretary's recommendations that repeal will be implemented only when the battle effectiveness of the forces is assured and proper preparations have been completed," said Brown.
"We have a long history in Massachusetts of respecting fiscal conservatism," noted Marc Landy, a Boston College political science professor. "We have elected a lot of Republican governors who reflect that. But they really need to show that they respect the cultural liberalism of the state. This was the first state to have gay marriage, and the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, for this state, is too anti-gay. I think Brown's ability to show that he's not in the pocket of his party on this question is really going to help his reelection."
Brown was a darling of the Tea Party movement during his campaign. The Tea Party Express PAC spent nearly $300,000 backing Brown in the race, with one activist commenting, "If it wasn't for the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown wouldn't have gotten that seat."
But apparently, he believes he can afford to ruffle a few of their feathers and still win in 2012. In April, he skipped a massive Tea Party rally in Boston and downplayed their significance in his race, commenting, "Did the Tea Party movement help me? Sure they did. So did 1.1 million other people in my state and so did others across the country. So to have one particular party take credit -- I'm appreciative. But I had a big tent in my election."
Financial reform -- not gay rights -- however, seems to be the big sticking point in the Tea Party's relationship with Brown. The Greater Boston Tea Party announced it was "greatly disappointed" when the senator announced he would vote for the overhaul package.
Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, which has an active member of 2,700, said that even for social conservatives like her, Brown's statement on DADT -- while disappointing -- really isn't a major issue in the state. She added that his vote in favor of financial reform was a much bigger deal and infuriated Tea Party activists.
"Something that people in Massachusetts -- especially those of us on the conservative end of things -- have learned in the last year, we're not always going to be able to elect a David Vitter in Massachusetts -- you know, someone on that conservative end of the spectrum," said Varley, pointing to the fact that Brown was with them last week on opposing an extension of unemployment benefits that wouldn't be offset.
Jay Dwyer of the Greater Waltham Tea Party said that the group, which has about 150 active members, supported Brown and actually formed partially in response to his candidacy. "Scott Brown really lit us up," he told The Huffington Post on Monday, saying that the group was generally pleased with the senator's performance -- with the exception of financial reform. Social issues, said Dwyer, were not as much of a focus.
"For a Massachusetts senator who's a Republican, he's pretty good," said Dwyer, adding, "I also have an extra measure of confidence in him because he is a military person, with this subject. I understand the concept of DADT is equal rights, but the situation when you join the military, by rule, you give up a number of rights. You do. You give up the right of freedom of expression. You can't. You give up the right to say things politically when you're in uniform. You can't. You give up privacy. You give up a lot of things. So it's a different environment than just a regular workplace environment, which it's often compared to. It's not."
Additionally, Brown's latest announcement seems to put him squarely within the majority of Bay State voters. A May poll found that 77 percent of Massachusetts voters support repealing DADT.
Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality, said she was pleasantly surprised at Brown's announcement on DADT and suspected a certain amount of political considerations factored into his decision.
"Well, the Tea Party announced after the election cycle was over that they were going to go after him," said Suffredini. "They had already come out saying that before he ever announced his position on Don't Ask Don't Tell. If you look at what happened during the election cycle in Massachusetts, the state Republican party and the national Republican party put tens of millions of dollars into elections here, and every statewide race they lost. Democrats won every statewide race at the state level and all the congressional races. My guess is that this is some political calculus on Scott Brown's part -- that it's not about the Tea Party, it's not about the Republican party. He's run, basically, as an independent, and he needs to vote according to what the state wants him to do."
Suffredini added, however, that Brown needs to do more than just put out a statement on DADT for MassEquality and other LGBT groups to consider him an advocate. After all, she added, he left himself some leeway in perhaps not voting to bring the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains DADT repeal, to the floor, which would satisfy his base.
Landy doesn't think Brown will have any trouble winning a GOP primary in 2012, and a recent poll suggests that he is in a strong position against hypothetical Democratic challengers.
"The difference is that, unlike a lot of these establishment Republicans who ran into so much trouble [in other states] -- some of whom were actually defeated in the primaries -- Brown is really personally popular with people in Massachusetts," said Landy. "So that makes a big difference. I mean, there could always be a challenger, but he will survive a Republican primary in this state. He won't lose in the primary."
Varley agreed with the assessment that Brown is unlikely to face a serious challenger in his primary, stating, "I think Scott Brown is as socially conservative as you can elect at the national level in Massachusetts."