BOSTON — Veterans of Massachusetts politics recall an earlier U.S. Senate race of gentility, large swaths of policy agreements, two candidates of patrician backgrounds, and fat political résumés squaring off in memorably civil debates: the William Weld-John Kerry campaign in 1996.
This is not that race.
Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his challenger, consumer advocate and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, ought to have memorable debates all right, if not for their fundamentally different views of government then for their conversational styles. Warren challenges a reporter’s diction during interviews, taking issue with descriptions of her criticism of Brown as ad hominem. Brown cuts in on a reporter quoting Warren’s criticisms of him, interjecting, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
And, to borrow a worn sports announcer’s construct, these two teams do not like each other. With each side discouraging outside groups from getting involved, the “contrast” side of campaigning has been largely left to the candidates themselves.
Brown and Warren are essentially knotted in the polls, heading into an August congressional recess that will free up Brown for in-state campaigning, then the fall debates. It’s shaping up as the most expensive race in the country, and the priciest in Massachusetts history. Warren will likely outraise Brown, with more than $15 million collected in the first half of the year compared with Brown’s $8.4 million. His coffers hold $15.5 million, hers $13.5 million as of June 30.
And neither middle-class-raised candidate feigns the Brahmin niceties that marked the Weld-Kerry race.
(BACKGROUND: A History of Senate Partisan Turnovers)
“Scott Brown voted to preserve billions of dollars in oil subsidies, and then scooped up more money from the oil industry,” Warren said, the remark to which Brown later objected. “He works to protect Wall Street, and then scoops up money from Wall Street.”
During an interview in a sushi restaurant in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston, following a tour of small businesses in the village and a visit to a sheet-metal union hall in Dorchester, Warren was asked if she believed that there had been causation between Brown’s votes and his big-business donors. “I can’t think of a single reason other than money that Scott Brown would vote to preserve billions of dollars in subsidies for the oil industry,” she replied.
Asked, based on her assertions, if she believed Brown was corrupt, Warren tiptoed to the line, but did not cross. “I think he has taken money from Wall Street and delivered for Wall Street. He has taken money from the oil companies and delivered for the oil companies,” she answered.
Brown, in a telephone interview a day before news broke of a fundraiser that independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to host for him, worked to position Warren as a figure of partisan “divisiveness.”
“She’s constantly criticizing the job creators and trying to pit different groups against one another,” Brown said.
Of her comments on his voting record, he said: “It’s obviously a misrepresentation of my record, and I have a record, and unfortunately she doesn’t.”
And then he pivoted to his famed pickup truck, which has added roughly 35,000 more miles since his 2010 campaign: “I’m Scott Brown, live in Wrentham, drive a truck with 235,000 miles on it, and you think I’m in bed with big oil and Wall Street?”
Brown, in turn, has dinged Warren for her shifting, tortured explanation of her ancestry, for offering what he calls an insufficient explanation of her work helping to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and for releasing four years of tax returns rather than the six he has posted. He is playing wait-and-see on the success of the CFPB, for which he voted, noting that the bureau is still “in its infancy.”
Warren’s disapproval of Brown appears driven not as much by personality—Brown has retained his likability, snagging a 40 percent approval rating among Democrats in a MassINC poll released last week—as by her palpably vehement philosophical opposition to the big-business complex that has allied itself with Brown. Her broadsides against Wall Street aren’t just spoken, they’re punctuated with hand gestures and vocal emphasis that underscore she’s not just going through the motions.
In Roslindale, Warren stopped by a thrift store, the profits of which go the Home for Little Wanderers, a Boston nonprofit for children’s services.
“The Supreme Court said the wealthiest people could grab the electorate by the throat and squeeze as hard as they want,” she told an employee behind the counter, before turning to her message of the day, criticizing Brown for voting the day before against the Disclose Act, which would have bolstered transparency requirements for donors to independent political groups.
It is not, Warren explained to a reporter later, that she is antibusiness. On the contrary, she said, she’s been hearing support from business types who spot in her the Second Coming of American Capitalism, a sort of Rockefeller in sky-blue blazers.
“Every now and again, I meet with someone who’s been very successful on Wall Street, who says, ‘I want to support your campaign because I believe you will save capitalism. I believe in capitalism, and I understand there have to be rules. And they have to be consistently enforced.’ That’s what I think is at stake in this election.”
That’s a hefty assignment, the salvation of capitalism, but Democratic strategists, while cringing at the grandiosity of the statement, say she articulates her vision for the assignment as well as any candidate. When President Obama earlier this month attempted to replicate Warren’s call-out of entrepreneurs as insufficiently grateful for the support structure that government offers the private sector, Republicans hammered him and forced him to cut a new ad explaining what he meant.
And, of course, she is not the only candidate in the race prone to highfalutin statements. Brown last year walked back an errant statement about viewing photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse and last month another about holding “secret meetings with kings and queens.”
Brown’s campaign this week posted a web video with remarks from, among others, JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, depicting a glorious free-market past, juxtaposed against Obama’s and Warren’s “you didn’t build that” message and a crumpled American flag lying on the ground.
It’s clear what both candidates believe hangs on the outcome of their race. Less clear are the limits of what they’re willing to say, and spend, to rescue their competing versions of capitalism.
This story is part of a series, The National Journal Big 10, focusing on important and representative House and Senate races. The composition of the Big 10 may change as circumstances warrant.