By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Don’t sell Scott Brown short

Scott Brown

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

Will Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts win re-election this November? Or will he be defeated by his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren? The answer, clearly, is “yes.”

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while. Frank Phillips’ story in today’s Boston Globe on Democrats who are panicking over the latest polls seems like as good a hook as any, so here we go.

From the moment Warren announced her candidacy, I’ve been struck by the fever-pitch feel that has permeated the race. Not among ordinary voters, of course; they won’t tune in until after Labor Day. But political junkies are fully engaged, as you know if you dip into the Twitter streams at #masen and #mapoli.

It seems to me that we’ve got a race between two very good candidates. I think Warren is the best the Democrats could have hoped for — not just better than the unknowns and wannabes who were running before she got into the race, but better than any member of the state’s Democratic establishment, with the possible exception of Gov. Deval Patrick.

Warren is articulate, she’s an economic populist, she combines insider experience with outsider credentials (how many people have managed to piss off both Republicans and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner?) and she’s almost as pretty as Brown.

Elizabeth Warren

Nor has she made any major missteps to this point. Brown supporters have tried to make hay of her endorsement of the Occupy movement, but that’s not going to play. The repeated references to her as “Professor” Warren are kind of pathetic. Anti-intellectualism does not have the sort of appeal in Massachusetts that it does in, say, Texas.

But some Democrats seem surprised, at the very least, that Brown didn’t topple like a rotten tree at the first sign that he’d have a serious opponent. Those sentiments vastly underestimate Brown’s strengths. In fact, I can think of two only first-class political talents to emerge in Massachusetts in the post-Michael Dukakis era: Patrick and Brown. (If Mitt Romney didn’t have a zillion dollars, I’m not sure he could win a seat on the Belmont Board of Selectmen.)

Democrats ignore the reality that no one is really angry at Brown other than liberal activists. He was elected just a little more than two years ago, and the glow from his startling victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley has not fully faded. Massachusetts voters have traditionally liked having a Republican in a statewide position, and with the governor’s office now in Democratic hands, Brown has that working for him as well. My sense is that a lot of voters are still rather pleased with themselves for their role in Brown’s win, and it’s going to take more than Warren’s just showing up to get them to change their minds.

Nor should anyone discount Brown’s political instincts, which are superb. Brown has been a master of not taking strong stands on divisive issues, leaving himself free to bend when it’s necessary for his survival as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. It took a while, but he eventually came around to voting for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was among the very few Republicans who voted in favor of financial regulation, although he also loses points for his role in weakening those regulations.

The outlier in Brown’s record is his staunch support for the Blunt amendment, which would undo President Obama’s compromise on birth-control coverage at colleges, hospitals and other secular employers owned by religious institutions. Although Brown’s stand doesn’t seem to have hurt him in the polls so far, I think those who argue his rising poll numbers reflect public support for Blunt are wrong. Again, people just aren’t paying attention yet.

Why did Brown do it? Who knows? Maybe he’s acting on principle. Maybe the Senate leadership believes it has let Brown stray from the reservation too often and demanded his fealty on this one. In the long run, Brown’s support for Blunt will probably hurt him at the margins, but it’s not likely to determine the outcome of the race.

So what will determine the outcome? My guess is turnout. If this weren’t a presidential-election year, Brown would probably be a shoo-in for re-election. But with Obama on the ballot, a lot of people in Massachusetts are going to come out on Election Day looking to vote a straight Democratic ticket. The likelihood that Romney will be Obama’s Republican opponent only makes matters worse for Brown. Romney is not popular here except among the state’s tiny band of Republicans.

Predictions are futile. But I would imagine that whoever wins, it’s going to be extremely close. My advice: Don’t sell Brown short. And chill out. It’s only March.

Photo of Scott Brown by Dan Kennedy. Photo of Elizabeth Warren by the U.S. Treasury Department via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    If I’m Warren, I’m taking a page out of Hillary Clinton’s Senate playbook and spending almost all my time on the road meeting with small local groups. Brown may have superb political instincts, but intellectually he’s kind of, you know, dumb, so Warren has an edge there. What she needs to do, however, is come across as accessible, approachable and composed — the anti-Coakley — and the way to do that is to engage voters on their own turf.

  2. Patricia Bennett

    Liz Warren is very unappealing to me. She always seems to be yelling – at least when I see her. She has yet to open herself up to voters, just invite only enagements. That God awful lecture about paved roads that we’ve pad for -like fingernails on a blackboard. So, with that said, I don’t get why everyone is so enthralled with her other than the fact she has a D next to her name. In my opinion, she’d have been better off at the consumer agency. I’m curious as to why she was passed over. And, i think she was “given” the option to run for the Senate seat as consolation prize by those in D.C. She doesn’t connect, at least for me. So, I will happily vote for Brown again.

  3. Rick Peterson

    @Mike: Tufts and BC Law makes him “dumb”? I’m guessing that being a Wrentham Selectman, Assessor and State Senator placed him in his share of “small local groups”. If he were that obtuse, it would have gotten around. Progressives keep ascribing a Kennedyesque cult of personality to Brown. Nothing could be further from the truth. He just happened to be the guy in the on-deck circle when voters discovered that they were allowed to think for themselves. God knows there was no Republican Machine for him to depend upon unlike his opponents. I guess when your only tool is a hammer, every job looks like a nail.

  4. Matt Kelly

    I sense a missing element in this thread: money. The Obama-haters poured money into Scott Brown’s campaign at the end because they were enthralled with the idea of capturing Ted Kennedy’s old seat. I don’t know that they’ll do so again, since Brown has shown he is not the Tea Party diehard they are.

    On the other hand, will Warren reap millions and millions from liberal activists frothing at the mouth to oust Scott Brown? Probably not. The extremists in each party have other fish to fry in other states this time.

  5. Mike Benedict

    Gee, Rick, are you basing that on when he said tax hikes on families who earn more than $250,000 per year would hurt “teachers, firefighters, policemen, folks who work two jobs?”

    Or when he said $47 billion of Medicare spending is lost each year to waste, fraud or abuse? (Think about that for a minute.)

    Or perhaps when he mistook doctored Internet images for classified photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse?

    Or when he blamed the poaching of Elizabeth Dole’s website content for his own site on a technical oversight?

    No, he’s not dumb. They just don’t teach things like plagiarism or theft or logic at Tufts or in law school anymore.

  6. Bill Dearing

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Dan.

    I’m a firm Warren supporter, but from the day he got elected, Brown’s political skills have really impressed me. The guy may have one of the best political ears in the state. And I can’t stand the guy.

    He often gets himself on the local news, more often than not speaking (maddeningly to me) about issues that are completely out of his jurisdiction as a Senator in Washington. He knows how to keep his name in the news, he knows how to say the right things, and more often than not, he gets heard sticking to issues that can’t hurt him later. The guy’s amazing. All people hear are him saying the right things, whether or not he can do anything about them.

    When Warren announced, as much as it pained me, I thought she’d be toast. She’s turned out to be better than I could have hoped for. When the early polls had her with a decisive lead, I thought that maybe this was going to be quick and painless. I’m annoyed with myself now for being that naive. Brown is just too good, has been working at re-election every day since he got the job, and it’s clear to me that’s going to be a long, brutal fight.

    As you note, the hand wringing this early is premature, and it’s going to be close. I just hope it goes my way.

  7. L.K. Collins

    I think Mikie’s lead comment on Warren best course action is correct.

    Brown’s hokie barn coat and campaign pick-up truck set a tone that was a sharp contrast to Coakley’s aloofness.

    Warren, I believe, has yet to connect to the voter, or, at least, to an extent sufficient to overcome Brown’s skills and the benefits derived from incumbency.

    My guess that, as a close race, it will go to Brown because of his advantages coming into the race.

  8. Tom Underwood

    I attended a Warren event last week in Gloucester. As the photographer for the event, I was within 10 feet of her for a good part of the evening. She was absolutely natural/approachable/at ease with the crowd. This included activist Democrats as well as many Gloucester natives who don’t suffer fools. Looked people in the eye, shook a hand and held it while talking, listening. Later, she gave a very compelling 20-minute speech talking about her MidWestern roots that had every chance of being maudlin and phony but wasn’t. I said to my wife later that if she barnstorms the state meeting as many voters as possible and then performs well against Brown in any debates she will have a definite shot at winning. I think that the more people see her in action the less the “Professor” and carpetbagger tags will stick.

  9. C. E. Stead

    DK – Scott must be doing pretty good. He walked two miles in the annual Cape Cod St. Patrick’s Day Parade today, which was held in a freak snowstorm. The Cape Cod Times reported, “The parade included six bag pipe bands, two school bands and politicians such as U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, D-Mass., U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Bourne, state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, and Governor’s Council candidate Walter Moniz.” When the media begins to assume you’re a Democrat….

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Well, doesn’t your friend Christen Varley consider Brown to be a RINO anyway?

  10. John F.J. Sullivan

    Re: the Blunt Amendment, it could be that Scott Brown thinks that employers who subsidize part of their workers’ health insurance should have the authority to choose which procedures and medication it covers.

    Covering contraception is a good idea, and one that ends up saving money down the road. But such coverage is hardly a civil right.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @John: That may be very well what Brown thinks, which means he’s ignorant of the law. How is this any different from laws covering mental-health coverage? Would an employee of a Scientology-owned institution be exempt because of that organization’s objection to psychology? And let’s not even get started with Christian Science.

  11. John F.J. Sullivan

    @Dan, your point speaks to the genius of a single-payer system (which, if handled correctly, could also have the benefit of saving money — though I acknowledge that’s a big if).

    The present system, “ObamaCare” or not, puts companies (that is, customers) in the position of being forced to pay for products or services they might not want, and would never have chosen unless compelled to. That’s the heart of the argument against an individual mandate (though that seems to be the only way universal coverage via the private insurance market could work).

    As with contraception coverage, health insurance subsidized by an employer may be a good idea (and might indeed even be the law — for now), but that still doesn’t make it a civil right.

    So, let’s say Scott Brown *does* believe as I stated before: That doesn’t necessarily make him ignorant of the law. He could simply disagree with it (which hardly makes him unique).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @John: No. The insurance business is heavily regulated right now. Private insurance plans are subject to all kinds of government regulations and mandates. The birth-control mandate is just one of many.

  12. C.E. Stead

    DK – remember that mandates vary widely from state to state. MANY states do not have mandated mental health coverage, or very limited coverage. In fact, Mass. didn’t mandate that it be covered on the same basis as any other illness until 2002. Many states have lifetime caps on coverage. Senate debate would be more geared towards what the rest of the nation has, not just us.

    Mass. mandates more coverages than any other state in the nation, which is why our rates are so high and we have so few providers willing to come to the state.

  13. Mike Benedict

    It’s tiresome to hear the Republicans — who launched the idea of a national health care system in the first place — blather on about wanting to protect consumers from paying for things they don’t directly want/need.

    Consider if that argument were applied to the national interstate system. “Why should I in Massachusetts pay for a road in Montana so some otherwise off-the-grid wheat farmer can get to the local watering hole?” Or the school system? Or the (way-overbudgeted) military? Or any of a gazillion other programs?

    This is about politics, nothing more. Just cut it out.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Another irony. There’s no constitutional issue with the health-care law as passed unless the Supremes want to roll back about 100 years of precedent. But there wouldn’t even be a theoretical constitutional issue if we had simply passed a single-payer, government-run plan.

  14. John F.J. Sullivan

    @Mike: The things you mention are paid for by legally collected tax dollars. Insurance is a consumer product, paid for in a private transaction by an employer or an individual. If you’re paying for a product, why shouldn’t you have the ability to decide what you’re paying for?

    Most medication isn’t covered 100 percent by insurance, and some isn’t even covered at all: Why should contraception be any different?

    • Dan Kennedy


      “If you’re paying for a product, why shouldn’t you have the ability to decide what you’re paying for?”

      Interesting philosophical question, but medical insurance is a highly regulated service. I don’t hear employers howling about any of the numerous other services they are required to cover. Just birth control.

      “Most medication isn’t covered 100 percent by insurance.”

      Free is just another price point. Would the bishops be mollified if the Obama administration issued a rule that they would have to cover contraception but that it would be subject to the normal co-pay? No. It would make no difference whatsoever. So what’s the point of even bringing it up?

  15. Mike Benedict

    What’s public and what’s private is mostly arbitrary, John. For example, many countries, including Japan, have private highways. I have yet to see convincing evidence that it is NOT in the national interest financially to relegate large swaths of medical care to an out of pocket expense.

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