By Annie Linskey
Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- If Scott Brown decides to run for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, he’ll have to get past the National Rifle Association before he can challenge Democratic incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen next November.
At least 200 gun rights activists, some with semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, last night stood in the snow in near-freezing temperatures wearing bright orange hunting clothes to protest as Brown headlined a Republican party fundraiser in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“Down with Brown. Down with Brown. Down with Brown,” they chanted, at times so loudly their words echoed across the street.
Brown has drawn the ire of the NRA and other gun owner advocates because of his vote for a state-level assault weapons ban in Massachusetts, where he previously served in the legislature, and remarks he made days after the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“As a state legislator in Massachusetts, I supported an assault weapons ban thinking other states would follow suit. But unfortunately, they have not, and innocent people are being killed,” Brown said to the Springfield Republican newspaper in a story published Dec. 19, 2012. “As a result, I support a federal assault weapons ban, perhaps like the legislation we have in Massachusetts.”
Brown, 54, last night declined to talk about his record on guns or his reaction to the protesters.
“If or when I’m a candidate I’ll address all that,” he said after leaving the sold out fundraiser. “I have a record, it is there to praise or criticize.”
Brown is moving to New Hampshire from Massachusetts, which he represented in the U.S. Senate from February 2010 to January of this year. Defeated for re-election in Massachusetts in November 2012 by Democrat Elizabeth Warren , Brown hasn’t said whether he’ll challenge Shaheen in his new state.
If he does, Brown could provide Republicans their best chance at unseating Shaheen and picking up one of the net of six seats they need to take control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans hold the majority in the U.S. House and analysts currently predict they will maintain that in next year’s midterm elections.
Before squaring off against Shaheen, Brown will have to win over a New Hampshire Republican primary electorate that views gun rights as a litmus test for how a candidate sees the role of government in daily life, said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
“The gun issue would be an issue he would have to answer for,” said Scala. “That’s something conservative voters would have a problem with. That is going to be a red light for them.”
Forty-four percent of New Hampshire households have at least one gun, according to a WMUR Granite State poll conducted last July. The survey showed that 58 percent of registered Republicans want no changes to the federal guns laws and 24 percent want them to be looser.
At least four other New Hampshire Republicans are seeking the party’s Senate nomination in a primary to be held next September.
Jim Rubens, 63, earned an “A” rating from the NRA, according to his campaign website. Karen Testerman, 69, describes herself as “pro-life, pro-family, pro-gun,” on her campaign website. Andy Martin, 68, wore orange in solidarity with last night’s protesters and called himself gun friendly.
The final candidate, former U.S. Senator Bob Smith, was named by the New Hampshire Fire Arms Coalition as a candidate with gun friendly credentials preferable to Brown.
“Guns are a deciding factor,” said Rubens in a telephone interview. “It might not be true for Massachusetts, but among Republicans in New Hampshire it is decisive. I can’t recall an anti-gun Republican who has won a primary.”
The protest was organized by the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, a Milford, New Hampshire-based group that calls itself the state’s “Only No Compromise Gun Rights Organization.” It labeled Brown a “liberal, anti-gun carpetbagger” in an e-mail to members urging them to attend the demonstration.
The group displayed a black Colt Defense LLC-manufactured AR-15 rifle, two AR-15 grips and several high capacity magazines on a table in a park across the street from the fundraiser where donors gathered for the Brown event. The group also asked members to bring an unwrapped toy gun to donate to the Salvation Army for distribution to needy children for the holidays.
“We need as many freedom-loving New Hampshire residents as we can get to show the Republican State Committee that they should not be supporting gun-banning candidates for U.S. Senate or any other office,” said one e-mail from the group.
Brown’s votes haven’t always matched his recent pro-gun control words and his support for the Massachusetts ban on assault weapons.
“He’s been extremely wishy-washy,” said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a Massachusetts-based proponent of gun restrictions that has tracked Brown’s record on the issue.
As a Massachusetts state representative in 2002, Brown voted with Second Amendment supporters for a bill that allowed access to guns for residents with some felony convictions after seven years, according to the Boston Globe. In 2008, the Gun Owners Action League, a Northboro, Massachusetts-based gun rights group, gave him an A+ rating.
The NRA spent at least $42,000 helping Brown get elected in the 2010 special Senate election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks political spending. After his election, the NRA said in a statement: “Scott Brown’s victory is a stunning defeat for gun control extremists.”
During his 2012 re-election race, Brown created a wedge with the NRA when he said he’d vote against the National Right-To-Carry Reciprocity Act, legislation that would let gun owners cross state lines with their weapons.
The stance earned him an endorsement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who picked him over Warren, an anti-Wall Street crusader. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
After the Sandy Hook shooting he said he would support a federal assault weapons ban.
Thirty percent of New Hampshire voters are registered Republicans, according to the secretary of the state’s office. Another 42 percent aren’t affiliated with either party, and under state law can vote in the Republican primary if they choose.
Judd Gregg, a Republican who served in the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire from 1993 to 2011, discounted the significance of gun rights in the race.
“It is not usually determinative in a primary election,” Gregg said in a telephone interview.
Instead, he said voters would focus on the botched roll out of the Affordable Care Act and how to deal with the federal deficit.
The Republican primary voters also will want to know: “Who is the strongest candidate for taking back the Senate?” he said.
The protesters found that assertion unpersuasive. “The gun position will be too high of a hurdle,” said JR Hoell, a New Hampshire state representative who attended the protest. “Scott Brown is a Democrat with an ’R’ on his chest. We don’t want him here.”