Control of the U.S. Senate in the 2012 election may well be decided by people like Ron Cordes, a 69-year-old retiree and longtime Democratic regular from Bedford, a small town along Interstate 95. He is the kind of voter whom Elizabeth Warren needs in her corner if she is to emerge from the Democratic primary and beat Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., next year, helping Democrats preserve their Senate majority.
“I think she’d make a great senator,” Cordes said in a recent interview, “but I’m sort of waiting to hear her make a campaign speech. I want to see if there’s something there that will turn the voters on. I know a lot of people who would make great holders of office but would have a great problem getting there, if you know what I mean.”
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Bay State Democrats know exactly what he means. Warren’s ability to range beyond her Harvard Law professor profile is the central question in the race. Can she make a convincing case that she cares less about the algorithms of regulatory policy than about doggedly delivering constituent services, the way that legendary Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy used to and that Brown has since emulated? Recruited by party heavyweights inside the Beltway, the former White House adviser risks coming across as an elitist disengaged from the middle-class voters who swung the 2010 special election to Brown.
“She’s got to get out of Cambridge and out of Washington and to these streets,” said Melrose Mayor Rob Dolan, a Democrat. “Because this election isn’t going to be won in Cambridge. It’s going to be won in Melrose and Reading and Stoneham and Chelmsford. Because every election in Massachusetts is. And Scott Brown has the high ground there.”
In the special election to succeed Kennedy after his death from cancer, the town of Melrose went for Republican Brown over Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley by just under than 2 percentage points, a nearly 11-point drop in Democratic support from Barack Obama’s share there in 2008. Brown lost Cordes’s hometown of Bedford by just 1 percentage point.
Brown’s success at appealing to blue-collar voters, stumping the state in a barn jacket and a GMC Canyon pickup, resulted in a majority of union voters breaking his way, according to the AFL-CIO’s exit polls. Although he won with support from conservative tea party activists, Brown has since cut a moderate figure, strategically defying Republican leaders on key votes and winning praise from Boston’s 18-year Democratic mayor, Thomas Menino. A recent Boston Globe poll found Brown to be the most popular major politician in the traditionally Democratic state. He also has banked $9.6 million for his reelection. Warren has just started fundraising efforts, albeit with ample help from outside groups such as EMILY’s List.
Warren’s first hurdle is the Democratic primary. This month, she joined a crowded field belatedly, and rivals for the party’s nomination have been campaigning for months. They are Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton; Thomas Conroy, a state representative; Bob Massie, the 1994 lieutenant governor nominee; Herb Robinson, an engineer; Marisa DeFranco, an immigration lawyer; and Alan Khazei, the founder of the national volunteer organization City Year, who posted an impressive $920,000 haul in the second quarter of the year.
The challenge to Brown has significant national ramifications. His is one of three Republican-held seats, along with Sen. Dean Heller’s in Nevada and Sen. Richard Lugar’s in Indiana, that Democrats believe are winnable and would help stave off anticipated GOP gains elsewhere. With 23 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2012, Republicans can win majority control of the Senate if they hold the seats they have and pick off just four Democratic incumbents. The chamber is currently divided 53-47 in favor of Democrats.
Warren’s ability to appeal to working-class and middle-class voters has yet to be tested. Her initial campaign “listening tour” was a tightly orchestrated series of closed-door sessions with party die-hards, many of them vestiges of the original coalition behind Gov. Deval Patrick, whose chief strategist and former communications director have joined Warren’s campaign. Her early inability to name a member of the Boston Red Sox delighted Republicans and anti-Warren Democrats, who recalled Coakley’s politically damaging apathy for the team in the sports-mad commonwealth.
But Warren seems determined not to repeat Coakley’s mistakes. Her well-received speech at a Labor Day union breakfast and her first announcement-day appearance — outside Broadway Station in South Boston, the symbolic heart of Scott Brown Country — shows she is aware that she has work to do with voters in such conclaves. A week ago, she visited Lt. Gov. Tim Murray’s annual breakfast fundraiser at O’Connor’s restaurant in Worcester, where the menu features “Lt. Governor Murray’s Famous & Enormous Beef, Mushroom, and Guinness Pie.” Later, she hit the Acton-Boxborough annual Democratic picnic, shown around by local state Rep. Jennifer Benson.
Less than two weeks into her formal campaign launch on Sept. 14, a web video of Warren at a house party extemporaneously laying out her takedown of the Republicans’ “class warfare” rhetoric revved national excitement about her ability to articulate a populist governing theory. That knack, Warren proponents say, could draw back the blue-collar voters who broke for Brown.
Indeed, Warren has a story to tell voters who might be put off by her Harvard Law professor’s résumé and her embrace of expanded government regulation as President Obama’s top adviser on consumer financial protection. Although she grew up outside the state, in Oklahoma, her upbringing is one working-class people can relate to.
Her father was a maintenance man for an apartment building and her mother answered the phones for the Sears catalog. When she was 12, her father suffered a heart attack, and the medical bills piled up. The family, which included Warren’s three older brothers, struggled financially. As a teenager, Warren waited tables at an aunt’s Mexican restaurant.
She married her high school sweetheart at age 19, while still in college, and had her first child, daughter Amelia, at age 22. Warren finished her degree at the University of Houston, and after the young family relocated to New Jersey, got a law degree from Rutgers University. The couple divorced in 1978. Warren later remarried, practiced law out of her living room, and ultimately got a job teaching at Harvard, where she has been for nearly 20 years.
On the campaign trail, she describes her experiences as growing up “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Reaction to questions about Warren among Massachusetts officeholders is a near-universal variation on “I haven’t met her,” but admiration for her biography.
“I think if they look deeper and see that she was a working mother, going back to school, I can relate to that and I think there are people who relate to that,” said Democratic House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, whose hometown of Somerset narrowly backed Brown after going big for Obama in 2008. “There are some people who won’t look deeper, and she has to sell them on the ‘I went back to school, I worked hard’ angle.”
Second Assistant House Majority Leader Kathi-Anne Reinstein, also a Democrat, said, “She has a very powerful story to tell. Scott Brown resonates incredibly with blue-collar voters, but if people hear Elizabeth Warren’s story, she is a serious pull-herself-up-by-your-bootstraps story.”
Dolan, the Melrose mayor, said that Warren will suffer less from the “Harvard elitist” label if she can convince blue-collar voters that she understands Main Street concerns such as public safety, school funding, and the role of federal aid in supporting hospitals that provide health care and jobs. “I think the big issue is the contrast with Scott Brown, who seems to have a record of more pragmatic, middle-class experiences — family, mortgage, small business, downtown, being at the state house, dealing with a lot of local issues, like filling potholes and school building assistance — those are things that people in towns like Melrose care about. I think that’s going to be her biggest challenge. Can she do it? I don’t know,” Dolan said.
“I understand it’s important to have broad, big ideas and be a theorist,” he said. “But I think people are craving a Democrat who understands bread-and-butter issues that affect people. I think she has a tough road there. Not that she can’t do it, but I think it’s a big challenge.”
Another Democratic mayor, Kim Driscoll of Salem, who briefly entertained the idea of running for the seat, said she thinks Warren can move beyond the “Professor Warren” of GOP press releases to become Elizabeth-On-Your-Side if she demonstrates visceral identification with issues like gas prices, aging parents, and public education. “How she relates to folks in those circumstances is I think what we’re all waiting to hear more about,” Driscoll said.
This article appears in the September 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.