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The Boston Globe

Politics

For Scott Brown, a possible third test against a woman

Scott Brown, who has faced off against Martha Coakley and Elizabeth Warren, may face Jeanne Shaheen next.

Scott Brown, who has faced off against Martha Coakley and Elizabeth Warren, may face Jeanne Shaheen next.

Only the state is different.

The truck’s the same, now with 300,000 miles on it. The message is the same, a breath of bipartisanship. It’s another nationally watched campaign, potentially with control of the Senate again hanging in the balance. And once again Scott Brown, this time in New Hampshire, finds himself taking aim at a female candidate.

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For the third time in five years, Brown is expected to wage a Senate bid against a woman, if he survives a Republican primary this September. Waiting for him if he wins is Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the first-term senator and the state’s former governor.

Political analysts struggled to name another male candidate who has run every major campaign of his career against women. The last time Brown’s name appeared on a general-election ballot opposite another viable male candidate was in his 2004 state Senate reelection bid.

He faced off against Attorney General Martha Coakley in a 2010 US Senate campaign in which he parlayed a regular-guy appeal and strong anti- establishment message into an unlikely victory. Against Elizabeth Warren in 2012, Brown made his wife and daughters a centerpiece of his campaign but nonetheless fell victim to the national Republican Party’s tarnished brand in Massachusetts and was swamped by the support that mounted behind President Obama.

Brown beat Coakley (top) in the 2010 special election, fell to Warren (middle) in his 2012 bid for reelection, and would likely face Shaheen if he formalizes his run for the US Senate seat in New Hampshire.

Brown beat Coakley (top) in the 2010 special election, fell to Warren (middle) in his 2012 bid for reelection, and would likely face Shaheen if he formalizes his run for the US Senate seat in New Hampshire.

But New Hampshire in 2014 is a different race. Shaheen has already run five times statewide, winning all but once in a state that has a long history of electing women to top offices. Brown, who billed himself as the ultimate Massachusetts guy, needs to fend off the notion that, by moving to the Granite State late last year and running there, he is office-shopping, perhaps with eyes on a national ticket.

But pitted once more against a member of the opposite sex, Cosmopolitan magazine’s former pick for “America’s sexiest man” back in 1982 faces an entirely distinct set of rules, analysts say.

“A male candidate running against a female candidate has to be very attuned to not coming across as overly aggressive or bullying or disrespectful or tossing out the gratuitous comment that’s interpreted by female voters as demeaning or sexist,” said Steve Schmidt, the national Republican strategist who advised Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and encouraged the selection of then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate. “There’s a low capacity for forgiveness.”

Hazards abound.

“You can’t comment on their appearance,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “You can’t make a remark about cookie baking. You can’t say anything that could be remotely construed as sexist. You can’t do anything that could be seen as threatening, a la Rick Lazio.”

Lazio was the GOP Senate candidate who ran against Hillary Clinton in 2000. The iconic moment of the campaign occurred during a debate, when Lazio approached Clinton and urged her to sign a campaign-finance pledge. Lazio’s gambit came across as threatening and helped sink his bid.

That episode has served as a warning for male candidates running against women. “Lazio didn’t realize the rules were different,” Duffy said.

With two campaigns against women, Brown has experience and “probably recognizes the pitfalls,” Duffy said.

Schmidt said Brown’s track record should prove to be helpful against Shaheen.

“Having had the experience of running against women candidates the way Brown has, he’s much less likely to make unforced errors the way Rick Lazio did by getting in the face of Hillary Clinton during a debate, or the way some of these other candidates did by making these deeply offensive and asinine comments,” Schmidt said, referring to a string of comments in 2012 by Republican Senate candidates that were deemed offensive to women.

In 2012, Brown often campaigned with his wife, former WCVB-TV reporter Gail Huff, and daughters, Ayla and Arianna. The frequent appearances with female family members by his side helped Brown connect with women and inoculate him from Democratic charges that he was inhospitable to female voters.

In 2012, Huff taped two television ads that began airing that June, highlighting Brown’s family-man side, replete with images of him cooking breakfast and folding laundry.

The ad was a defensive technique, part of an effort to mitigate Warren’s attacks on Brown as disconnected on issues important to women: She hammered him over his cosponsorship of legislation that would have allowed employers to deny contraceptive coverage, based on their religious beliefs, in their health care coverage.

Brown ultimately lost the 2012 race to Warren by 8 percentage points, but female voters in particular supported her by a far wider margin: 59 percent to 41 percent.

While Massachusetts has historically been rocky ground for female candidates, New Hampshire is more welcoming. Bay State voters have never elected a female governor, and Warren is the state’s only female senator. The US House delegation includes two women, Niki Tsongas and Katherine Clark.

In New Hampshire, the state’s congressional delegation is all female: senators Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican; and Representatives Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster, both Democrats. Its governor is also a woman, Democrat Maggie Hassan.

Nor is Shaheen an average pol. She is the only woman in history to have been elected both governor and senator. For Brown to break the grip that female politicians have on New Hampshire, he will need to toe a line he is perhaps uniquely experienced in confronting. Or cross it, at his own peril.

First, though Brown must survive a primary that includes former US senator Bob Smith, former state senator Jim Rubens, and conservative activist Karen Testerman.

Brown, too, runs the risk of overplaying his Average Joe charm into a less advantageous frat-boy image, one analyst noted.

“It sort of shows a lack of seriousness, a lack of gravitas,” Duffy said of Brown’s casual demeanor. “It also is really striking, given how serious [Shaheen] is. It’s kind of a stark contrast, so he needs to clean up his act a little bit in that regard.”

In his earlier races, Brown committed no mortal sins along the gender fault line, though some observers felt that he pressed Warren too hard about her claim to Native American ancestry in the early going of their first debate.

“The first debate and his immediate attack on Elizabeth Warren in that first debate did not prove to be effective for him, and I think was a mistake,” said Doug Rubin, who was Warren’s senior strategist. “And I don’t know if that was just because he was running against a woman or because voters had seen him as a good guy, and that kind of destroyed that image.”

This time around, Brown has already set about reviving that affable persona, embarking on a listening tour of New Hampshire as he prepares to launch a challenge to Shaheen. That famously energetic retail campaigning has again lent him an air of accessibility, a quality that could help him erode Shaheen’s sturdy footing in the state.

“I think that he’s got a very different electorate in New Hampshire,” Rubin said, noting that the state is far friendlier to Republican candidates than is Massachusetts.. “I think the makeup of that electorate puts him in a stronger place to start than the Massachusetts one, so he’s going to have more room to maneuver than he did in Massachusetts.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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