It’s not easy being Brown in a blue state.
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Brown’s office has been tireless at constituent services, even retaining some of Kennedy’s staffers who helped with immigration issues. (That kind of work frankly had more to do with Kennedy’s political durability than his liberal voting record.) He is a dogged door-knocker and practitioner of retail politics. Brown’s press releases emphasize the local (remember Tip O’Neill’s adage?) and the non-ideological.
Elizabeth Warren is none of those things. She is a defender of the “99 percent.” A Harvard professor who advised President Obama on financial regulation, she was a liberal favorite to become the first person to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama declined because he didn’t think he could get her confirmed and ended up having to ram through Richard Cordray in a disputed recess appointment. (Brown, ironically, was a rare Republican who voted for the CFPB’s creation and Cordray’s confirmation.)
Warren is running against Wall Street and economic inequality. That’s not exactly a losing message in Massachusetts. But like Coakley, she’s an imperfect populist. Warren supported the $700 billion bank bailout, which she oversaw for the Obama administration. She’s also willing to take campaign donations from bailout recipients, though she claims such contributions flow purely from those who “want reform.” She told the Boston Herald, “There are people on Wall Street who actually believe we need better rules, fairer rules.” The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney had a somewhat different take: “The way you prove you want reform? You give money to Warren.”
BROWN AND WARREN arrived at an agreement to discourage third party ads that take a side in the Massachusetts Senate race. Brown has twice had to make donations to a charity of Warren’s choice because business groups have ostensibly violated the pledge. He most recently cut a check for $34,545 because of a series of commercials by the American Petroleum Institute. But the agreement could end up being marginally to Brown’s benefit, because at this point more outside groups may be inclined to support Warren (the biggest out-of-state conservative group helping Brown was the Karl Rove-aligned American Crossroads).
An exchange Brown and Warren had over the pledge also highlights a potential pitfall for the Democrat. “I am pleased to uphold my end of the bargain with Professor Warren,” Brown said in a statement. “With this action, we have taken a step toward strengthening the People’s Pledge by expanding it to cover issue ads. I am determined to keep third-party groups out of Massachusetts and I am encouraged that issue ads are now covered and by the commitment that both candidates have shown to honoring the People’s Pledge.”
Contrast this with Warren’s statement: “It is appropriate that on the day Scott Brown votes to give billions in tax dollars to big oil, the richest most profitable companies on the planet, he’s writing a check because big oil spent tens of thousands of dollars advertising on his behalf. Big oil and energy already have given him nearly $200,000. But we are glad he has decided to pay up and the pledge is intact.”
One of Martha Coakley’s problems was that she appeared relentlessly negative, while Brown remained positive and upbeat. It’s more acceptable for a challenger to criticize an incumbent’s record, and unlike the special election, the Brown-Warren contest will happen while other political mudslinging is going on. But Warren at least runs a risk of falling into the trap Brown set for Coakley. Writes Bernstein, “Tellingly, Brown has not unleashed his bankroll to attack Warren—to define her negatively, before she has a chance to solidify a positive impression.”
Although Warren’s strong poll and fundraising numbers cleared the field of major primary competitors, her glide path to the Democratic nomination is also attributable to her party’s major elected officials taking a pass on the race. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has openly signaled that he thinks Brown will win and that Warren must prove she is “saleable.” In a late March interview, he even declined to express support for Warren. “I’m not with anybody at this time,” Menino told a Boston television station. “At this time, I’m not involved in the campaign.”
BROWN IS A RARE Massachusetts Republican who has never lost an election. Warren is a Democrat who has never won one. But this won’t be a cakewalk. Brown has little margin for error. Warren’s party affiliation gives her a much higher floor. Remember that Coakley ran a much worse campaign in a more difficult climate without high turnout from Democratic blocs, and she still received 47.1 percent of the vote. Brown ran in a Tea Party year with an element of surprise and got 51.9 percent.
With the exception of the GOP landslide year of 1994, Republican statewide winners since 1990 have typically finished in the low 50s by carrying at least 65 percent of independents, 25 percent of Democrats, and 90 percent of Republicans. Brown will have to hit those numbers while Obama is on the ballot, in a state where recent Democratic presidential nominees have broken 60 percent. Massachusetts Republicans fielded an unusually competitive slate of candidates in the last election, but all of them, except for Brown and some people running for the legislature, lost.
So it’s no surprise that Scott Brown will be behind Romney in the race for the White House. Romney is the only candidate who might keep Obama below 60 percent in Massachusetts. But in his typical balancing act, Brown will stay way, way behind Romney.