RYE, New Hampshire – As evening light bounced off the fall foliage on the New Hampshire seacoast on Friday, about 85 people huddled in a barn decorated with little white lights and round paper lanterns to hear from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the latest Republican presidential candidate to visit a series hosted by former Sen. Scott Brown dubbed “No BS Backyard BBQs.”
“Scott’s one of my best buddies,” Graham said. “Tenacious campaigner. We served in Afghanistan together. He’s a military officer. He’s a JAG like me … I think events like this help me.”Brown played the role of emcee for the evening, hustling between attendees to bring a microphone to anyone who wished to ask a question and ensuring everyone had the right drinks in hand. His wife, journalist Gail Huff, glided in and out of the barn with a platter of hot dogs she offered guests.
In the lead-up to New Hampshire’s all-important primary, Brown is hosting as many Republican presidential candidates as he can for free events open to the public. Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts and failed Senate candidate in New Hampshire, is working to remain a force in the state’s political scene, partly through bringing 2016 hopefuls through his town for people to meet.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Gov. George Pataki have made appearances, and there are plans in motion for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to appear soon.
This is Brown’s first presidential primary as a New Hampshire resident. Three years ago, he was representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. After losing that seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, Brown and his family relocated to Rye, N.H., where they long owned a summer home. Last year, Brown challenged incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., for her seat in the 2014 midterms. Since narrowly losing that election, Brown and his wife were looking for ways to get involved in the state’s highly contested primary, but they were both still undecided.
“It was my wife’s idea, actually,” he told NBC News after the event with Graham. “She said, let’s have everyone over for a barbecue because we know all of the candidates personally. I served with Lindsey. I served with Marco. I know Chris Christie. So we know them all. The only one I hadn’t met was Ben Carson and Kasich. Other than that I knew everyone else.”
A large portion of the people showing up to his barbecues are genuinely undecided voters trying to figure things out, he said. “They are really getting an interesting flavor as to what kind of candidate is out there, different styles, different issues, and they are learning.”
“Obviously Scott’s not running for office and we wanted a way to be able to not just invite the candidates for us to talk to but to give other people the opportunity to talk to them as well,” said Huff.
At Friday’s event, Graham took sharp aim at Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. His message was dark, but his demeanor was anything but as he met individually with anyone there who cared to chat. Brown, meanwhile, walked around picking up trash as people slowly filtered out of barn to their cars.
“I think it’s a very relaxed atmosphere. People ask a lot of tough questions. They really vet the candidates at events like this, and it’s a lot less formal so people can feel a lot freer to talk and speak,” said Jim McEachern, chairman of the Derry Republican Town Committee, who was at the Graham event. “I think it’s great that Scott and Gail opened up their house and are hosting these events.”
“He’s playing an important role,” said Jennifer Horn, the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “Sen. Brown is clearly embracing the spirit and the principle of the first-in-the-nation primary and by hosting events offering important opportunities for voters to get to know the candidates personally.”
Brown says he’ll likely make an endorsement in the presidential race some time around January, after he has had a chance to host as many Republican presidential candidates as he can, and just as the primary cycle kicks into full gear.
“There’s no endorsement that wins or loses a race,” noted Horn, adding, “[Brown] put down roots in New Hampshire and has been very actively engaged in the Republican Party for years now. Even before [moving] he was a Republican voice that people in New Hampshire respected.”
“There’s no question” a Brown endorsement will be influential, she said. “It will have an impact in the race.”
Not everyone in New Hampshire is so sure. “I’m sure Brown’s house parties draw well because he’s hosting. But that’s about the extent of his ‘influence,’” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“Brown’s endorsement would be a nice one-day story, especially for a candidate stuck in the middle or lower tiers of this race. But after losing last year’s Senate race, Brown’s nod is not going to convince many voters. He’s no kingmaker, but then again, those are rare in New Hampshire.”
For now, Brown is working with Fox News as a contributor and serving on various boards as a director or adviser. He says he’s very active in sports and will soon be coaching 8th grade girls basketball. “Living life,” he said. “Spending time with the wife and the kids and enjoying life, quite frankly.”
His role now in Republican Party politics in New Hampshire is “whatever they want me to play,” he added.
“Not only raise money, but raise awareness, bring people together, bring presidential candidates to my backyard. I’m the only guy in the country doing this and the only one in New Hampshire who can get every single one of them here, and that has great value for the first in the nation primary state and its status of staying so.”