Former Sen. Scott Brown, candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds a campaign town hall rally at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Aug. 18, 2014.
Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
By Jay Newton-Small
September 8, 2014

Janice Leahy, a small businesswoman in New Hampshire, still doesn’t understand why Republican senate candidate Scott Brown gave her a “hero” award when they met in May. “I’m an ordinary person,” Leahy tells TIME. “I’m no hero. I don’t look at myself as person of stature or significance or anything else.”

Armed with spreadsheets, Leahy had met with Brown at a diner in Windham to talk about the burden of Obamacare on her small software and professional services businesses. That’s when he presented her with a polished black plaque, emblazoned with the words, “Women for Scott Brown.” A press release followed. “I’m pleased to award Janice with a Hero Award to celebrate her determination to maintain a business despite government red tape and burdensome regulations that make for a very tough environment not only for women-oriented businesses, but for everyone,” Brown said in the statement. “That’s why I support full repeal of Obamacare.”

Leahy, a Republican, says she was left confused and embarrassed by the whole episode. She also says she is not sure she will vote for Brown in November, given his 2012 vote against an equal pay bill, an issue close to her heart given that she works in a male-dominated industry. “I’m not happy about his vote against it and I would need to know more about it before I vote for him,” Leahy says. “I haven’t decided yet which way I’ll vote in November.”

The episode is emblematic for Brown, who has been struggling to connect with women in his bid to unseat Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. Although Brown and Shaheen are neck-and-neck in polls overall—with Brown garnering 44% of likely voters to Shaheen’s 46%—Brown is losing women to Shaheen by 39% to 53%, according to an Aug. 21 WMUR Granite State poll.

He has tried to chip away at this deficit on the campaign trail. Brown’s campaign defines “The Women for Brown ‘Hero’ Awards” as commendations “meant to recognize individuals who are contributing to the economic life of New Hampshire, helping our community thrive and building strong families, sometimes despite adverse circumstances.” Emails to the campaign asking about how the honorees are selected went unanswered.

The awards have been timed to underscore policy talking points the campaign has sought to spread. The second plaque was given to Naswa Resorts owner Cynthia Markis and her mother, Hope, for operating their business despite high energy and Obamacare costs. And Brown gave a third award to Commandant Peggy LaBrecque, who runs the state’s only longterm care facility for veterans, on Veterans Day, using the event to highlight a package of veterans policy initiatives he unveiled that day. Repeated calls for comment to Markis and LaBrecque went unanswered.

Shaheen is the first woman in U.S. history to be elected both governor and senator. If Brown loses, he’ll also make history: He’d be the first man to lose two Senate races to two women. In 2012, he lost his Senate seat in neighboring Massachusetts to Elizabeth Warren. Shaheen’s campaign says Brown’s awards are patronizing towards women. “New Hampshire women aren’t looking for plaques, they are looking for a Senator who stands up equal pay for equal work and protecting access to basic health services like mammograms —and Scott Brown has proven he can’t be trusted to do that,” says Harrell Kirstein, a Shaheen campaign spokesman.

Brown’s challenge is shared by Republicans across the country. Unlike 2010, the GOP wave year when Republicans won the female vote for the first time since Ronald Reagan, women have helped Democrats stay competitive so far in several races across the country this year, including New Hampshire, North Carolina and Louisiana. Democrats have made a concerted effort to appeal to female voters, hoping to avoid another wave of losses like in 2010. They’ve introduced a women’s economic agenda and have repeatedly hit Republicans for waging a ‘War on Women,’ over access to abortion and contraceptives.

Leahy says she now sees the award as a thing meant to mean more for Brown than her. “I think it’s his push to show women in the area he understands inherently their issues, what’s near and dear in their hearts,” Leahy says.

But she noted that Brown has a tough task ahead of him, given the pride the state now has in having an entirely female Congressional delegation, which includes Brown’s rival Shaheen. “I do think it’s the coolest historical thing that we have full female congressional delegation,” Leahy said. “Being a woman, I like that that’s brought to the forefront all the time.”

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