The last time Bob Smith campaigned for the US Senate in New Hampshire, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. He organized his talking points on index cards and, when he needed to check in with headquarters, his staff would find a pay phone.
The political world he entered when he joined the Granite State’s 2014 GOP primary last December is drastically different from the one he left 12 years ago, and not just because of the rise of social media and smartphones. Republican politics have changed, too, in ways that Smith and his supporters say have marginalized the most conservative members of the electorate.
“We need to be activists, we need to get out. We can have an impact,” Smith, 73, told the 30 people who gathered to hear him speak in a school auditorium in southwestern New Hampshire one night last week. “Bring our people out. Nixon used to call them the silent majority. . . . This is about saving this country.”
That kind of passion fueled Smith’s decision to run for office more than a decade after losing his Senate seat to a primary challenger. He’s new to the modern political landscape, but he sees social media and other technologies as potentially powerful tools for a lean campaign like his to challenge the robust operation assembled by former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown.
“What’s surprised me the most is the intensity of it, the impact,” Smith said in a phone interview this week. “When you’re campaigning against a lot of money, it’s a good thing.”
The Senate race has drawn national attention — but not because of Smith’s unlikely comeback attempt. It’s Brown’s presence that is drawing big interest, a fact that appears to frustrate Smith and his other primary opponent, former state senator Jim Rubens.
Smith spent more years in Congress than Brown and incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen combined. He won a seat in the House in 1984 and, six years later, ascended to the Senate, where he served until losing the 2002 GOP primary to US Representative John E. Sununu, by then the favorite of the party establishment. Republican leaders had grown weary of Smith, especially after his dramatic departure from the GOP in 1999 to run for president that year as the candidate of the US Taxpayers Party.
Smith’s tenure in Congress overlapped with what many Republicans view as a golden age for their party, a time Smith talks about often on the campaign trail.
“It’s an attempt to return to normal,” said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “There’s a type of Republican Party that people talk about, and usually they invoke Reagan’s name. There’s something safe and almost nostalgic about that Republican Party.”
Lesperance says the era during which Smith served is associated with a sort of socially acceptable conservatism, one without the vitriol that’s emerged in recent years. What’s unclear is how much that will resonate with voters.
Smith has surfaced politically a few times since his 2002 defeat. After leaving the Senate, he took a job selling real estate in Florida, where he made brief bids for the Senate in 2004 and 2010. In the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary, he stumped for Newt Gingrich.
In many ways, though, Smith’s current campaign may be most like his own short, tumultuous bid for president. In 1997, a year after winning reelection to the Senate, Smith launched the Live Free or Die Committee to explore a run in the 2000 GOP primary. He soon grew frustrated with his fellow Republicans, accusing them of making too many concessions on issues including gun control and abortion.
In 1999, he left the GOP and joined the US Taxpayers Party to run for president. After his switch, Smith told the Associated Press that he was the right choice for conservatives who believe in “the right to life, the 2d Amendment, a strong constitutional government.”
“Come home, conservatives,” he said. “And Bob Smith will be the next president of the United States.”
Smith’s brand of conservatism — and his eventual return to the GOP — was much discussed at the time. Columnist George Will once wrote that “it is almost theoretically impossible to get to the right of his voting record in Congress. . . . and he knows how to serve red meat to right wingers.”
That focus on what matters to conservatives has remained a consistent part of Smith’s political rhetoric. At last week’s campaign event, Smith blasted amnesty for undocumented immigrants, vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and called for deeper inquires into the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Smith — who served in the Navy in Vietnam — grew visibly upset over the recent troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs and said there should be fewer foreign wars.
Smith spent two hours answering questions from the audience, using a clear, slow voice perfected during his pre-Congress years as a history teacher. His says this type of free-form event suits him because it allows him to discuss issues that he says just can’t be covered in a few sound bites.
“We’re faced now with a crisis in our country,” he said. “These things cannot be debated or answered in one or two minute short sentences. . . . There’s a lot more to it than that.”