A major question in the special Senate election going on in Massachusetts right now is whether the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, is too conservative for the state.
Matthew Yglesias says Brown is playing a losing hand:
At the end of the day, it’s hardly impossible for a Republican to win statewide in Massachusetts. Mitt Romney won in 2002. Paul Cellucci won in 1998. And William Weld won in 1990 and 1994. What’s more, Weld almost beat John Kerry in 1996. There hasn’t been an open Senate seat in Massachusetts in forever, and it’s hard to beat incumbents who aren’t hit by scandal or something, but in the more open fields of gubernatorial politics the Bay State Republicans have done quite well. But the formula for winning as a Republican in Massachusetts is pretty clear—you want to be independent from the machine, and generally for lower taxes and less regulation than your Democratic opponent, but also decidedly not as right-wing as the kind of guys the GOP runs for Senate in Alabama.
And Brown’s just not doing that. He’s close enough to Coakley that you’ve got to believe he really could win if he would find a signature issue on which to demonstrate his independence. He could be a consistent libertarian, who’s for low taxes, less regulation, gun rights, but also gay equality and minimal restrictions on abortion. Or he could espouse green conservatism and say he’s generally on the right but wants to back a cap-and-trade program. Or he could think of something else. But instead he seems to have thought of . . . nothing at all besides putting a slightly moderate spin on orthodox conservative views.
There’s just no reason to think this will work. Mitt Romney couldn’t have won with this strategy. Nor could Paul Cellucci. Nor could Bill Weld. The obvious thing to do would have been to follow in those guys’ footsteps, but Brown’s not doing it. And this kind of ideological inflexibility is the best way for a party to squander a very favorable electoral landscape.
However, Boris Shor, a political scientist at the Harris School at the University of Chicago, finds that Brown's record is relatively liberal even by Massachusetts Republican standards:
In 2002, he filled out a Votesmart survey on his policy positions in the context of running for the State Senate... [H]ow do we compare Brown to other state legislators, or more generally to other politicians across the country? My research, along with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, allows us to make precisely these comparisons. Essentially, I use the entirety of state legislative voting records across the country, and I make them comparable by calibrating them through Project Votesmart’s candidate surveys.
By doing so, I can estimate Brown’s ideological score very precisely. It turns out that his score is –0.17, compared with [New York State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava's] score of 0.02. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones.
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!
Of course, while the Republicans here are liberal, Democrats are incredibly liberal. In comparison to them, Brown is a conservative. He was also the most conservative of the tiny handful of Republican State Senators.
One possible interpretation is both are right -- Brown's record is relatively moderate, but he's still not liberal enough to win a statewide election in Massachusetts. It also seems likely that he's moved right to try to inspire his base for a low-turnout special election, though I don't know for sure.
Update 1/15 5:18 PM: Shor clarifies in comments:
Moving ideologically wouldn't be unheard of when moving from a small constituency to such a large one (think of Gillibrand). But the political science literature shows scant evidence that this is systematically true, as far as I know.
My only comment would be that Votesmart survey is important, but wouldn't be enough by itself. I am including his entire roll-call record, as well as that of every other MA state legislator. The survey is only being used to put state legislators and members of Congress on a common scale. The roll call database wouldn't be enough by itself either, because of varying agendas. So what's new is the roll call record, plus mating it to the Votesmart survey.
I've corrected the post above to note that Shor is using Brown's legislative voting record as well as his Votesmart survey response. In terms of Shor's other point, he is correct that legislators tend to be ideologically consistent over time. The question is whether that finding applies to Brown or if he's deviated from his previous stances for the Senate race.