Five different takes on the Brown-Warren Senate race

Photo credit: Tannen Maury/EPA/Landov Photo credit: Don Treeger/The Republican/Landov


Story telling


Spinning a good yarn is how we have recorded history, shared experiences, and tapped human emotion going back to cave drawings—and it’s central to how candidates connect with and win over voters. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have both unspooled now-familiar personal tales of hard times while growing up. But beyond the effort to connect by biography, candidates need to tell a broader story that crystallizes what the race all comes down to. Which explains why Elizabeth Warren seems unusually excited to be standing at the edge of a dusty Quincy construction site on a hot August afternoon.

The project she’s visiting, which involves the relocation and uncovering of a now underground brook, is part of a massive $1.6 billion redevelopment project aimed at transforming downtown Quincy. With a gaggle of reporters looking on, Warren’s eyes light up as the city’s mayor, Tom Koch, tells her about the 7,000 construction jobs the public-private partnership is bringing to his city and the 10,000 permanent jobs eventually expected—and how every dollar of public money going into the project is leveraging $4 of private investment. Millions of dollars in new tax revenue, meanwhile, will help fund “teachers and policemen and so forth,” Koch adds. “It’s a phenomenal project.” Every campaign hinges on a broader narrative that tries to frame the race.The mayor’s words are music to Warren’s ears because he’s singing her song. Or, more precisely, telling her story.

Every campaign hinges on a personal story of who a candidate is and a broader narrative that tries to frame the crucial issues of the race. Warren’s campaign story has a lot to do with the prosaic world of sewer system upgrades and road improvements. It started more than a year ago, when she went on an impromptu riff at an Andover house party, which was captured on a grainy video that went viral with nearly 1 million hits on YouTube.

The Harvard law professor said at the gathering that some have charged her with engaging in class warfare. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she said, explaining her call for big corporations and wealthy individuals to pay more taxes. “You built a factory out there. Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” She applauded those who make a bundle of money from such enterprise. “God bless. Keep a big hunk of it,” she said. “But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

When she emerged to carry the torch for the Democratic Party into battle against Republican Sen. Scott Brown, fiery speeches like the one delivered in Andover revved up a liberal base looking for someone who wouldn’t mince words. But Brown has seized on such talk as evidence of how far out of step Warren is.

The day after Warren’s visit to Quincy, he is at a Roxbury textile factory operated by a Tufts University classmate of his, Hank Miller, whose grandfather started the business more than 100 years ago. Brown has a story of his own to tell, and he’s rolling it out on his “Thank You For Building This” tour, part of the attack he’s been waging on Warren and the idea that private enterprise somehow owes its success to government.

“I believe the path to prosperity starts right here, in businesses like this [one] that hires and employs almost a hundred people throughout Massachusetts, hardworking risk-takers like Hank and his family, who were willing to put it all on the line and grow this business,” Brown says. “Professor Warren has a very different view. She believes no one succeeded on their own, and that government is responsible for the success of entrepreneurs like Hank, and I can assure you that that’s not the case.”

A reporter asks Brown about military contracts the company gets, and he says the firm has bid on such work “openly and fairly.” A couple of weeks after Brown’s visit, Hank Miller goes off-message in an interview with the Boston Globe. “I don’t think it’s black and white,” Miller tells the paper. “They both have reasonable points,” he says of the arguments Brown and Warren have been making about how the economy grows and jobs get created.

But subtlety is not always the coin of the campaign realm. The contrasting views put forward by Warren and Brown on the economy, jobs, and taxes have become a central point of contention in the race. They found an echo in the national party conventions, where Republicans praised the power of tax cuts and private enterprise to lift the economy, while Democrats emphasized that we’re all in this together, with government playing a crucial role. Which tale resonates more clearly with Massachusetts voters will go a long way toward determining which candidate will one day be telling battle stories about the marquee Senate race they won back in 2012.     — michael jonas  


Scott Brown has been remarkably consistent on the need for bipartisanship in Washington. “Does Massachusetts need another elected official from the same party that will merely rubber stamp the politics of one particular party and the administration?” he asked when he kicked off his first campaign for the US Senate in 2009. “To that, I say absolutely not.”

It was a novel pitch in bluer-than-blue Massachusetts. In a state with an all-Democrat, liberal congressional delegation, Brown was essentially asking voters to give a bipartisan, likable, fiscally conservative Republican a chance. To nearly everyone’s surprise, voters said yes.

Senator Brown then went on to do exactly what he said he was going to do: He cast votes that crossed party lines. In an analysis of Congress’s 2011 votes, Congressional Quarterly concluded that the House and Senate were more partisan than ever, yet three Republican senators bucked that trend. CQ’s analysis showed Susan Collins of Maine voted against her party’s majority nearly 52 percent of the time, Brown voted off nearly 46 percent of the time, and Maine’s other senator, Olympia Snowe, did so 43 percent of the time. No other senator—Democrat or Republican—voted against their party more than 28 percent of the time.

Brown also demonstrated bipartisanship in cloture votes, which in some ways are a better measure of independence. Cloture votes are an attempt by the majority party (Democrats, in the case of the Senate) to cut off debate and take a final vote on a piece of legislation, something that requires 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. During his three years in office, Brown voted for cloture two-thirds of the time. But a closer look at those votes indicates they may overstate Brown’s bipartisanship. Overall, Brown agreed on cloture with his liberal Democratic colleague John Kerry 57 percent of the time and with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell 70 percent of the time. But on the close cloture votes, those where the margin was narrow, he sided with McConnell 62 percent of the time and Kerry 34 percent of the time. Still, he kept a foot in both camps.

In his campaign against Elizabeth Warren, Brown has wrapped himself in bipartisanship. In one ad, former Boston mayor Ray Flynn calls Brown “an independent voice. I’m a Democrat but I’m tired of all the pettiness and bickering.” Former Worcester mayor Konnie Lukes says: “We need more Scott Browns. He cuts through all those party alignments.”

Brown’s strategy has given Warren fits. Her initial response was to trumpet her own independence. At a campaign stop in Worcester, she cites her work building consensus on the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel and her legendary run-ins with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “No one who saw my work during the fiscal crisis thinks I’m reluctant to break with the Democrats when it’s appropriate,” says Warren, who was a registered Republican into her 40s.

Warren’s fallback argument is that even a Scott Brown Republican is still a Republican. “The real question is whose side does he stand on?” she asks. While Brown says he stands on no one’s side, she says that’s not true. “On the big votes, Scott Brown has been there consistently for the Republican Party, Wall Street, and the monied interests,” she says. She cites his votes against the Disclose Act, the Buffett Rule, and against the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. She also cites his opposition to health care, his vote for subsidies for oil companies, and his cosponsorship of the Blunt Amendment dealing with conscience exemptions and birth control.

In many ways, Warren is taking a page from Brown’s own playbook, attempting to place the Senate race in a national context. Brown did it in 2009, appealing to the Tea Party nationally and promising to be the 41st vote against the Affordable Care Act.  This time around Brown doesn’t want the race to go national. He’s running away from the Republican Party and his mentor Mitt Romney, with whom he shares political advisors. But Warren is warning that a vote for Brown would be a vote for a Republican-controlled Senate headed by Mitch McConnell.

Massachusetts voters, who overwhelmingly support President Obama in opinion polls, face a tough choice. Is splitting their ticket with a vote for Obama and a bipartisan Republican senator like Brown the best way to end gridlock in Washington? Or is gridlock here to stay, making the bipartisanship espoused by Brown a quaint but increasingly irrelevant political attribute?        — bruce mohl  

Victory map

Elizabeth Warren’s path to victory in the US Senate race looks simple on paper. In the 2010 special election, Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley by five points, or about 100,000 votes. So if the presidential election brings out an extra 700,000 to 800,000 voters, all Warren has to do is hold on to Martha Coakley’s supporters, keep waves of Barack Obama voters from splitting the ticket, and ride the turnout to victory.

But the Democrats’ math may not add up. A swell in pro-Obama turnout isn’t as threatening to Brown as it might seem, because Brown has already demonstrated the ability to win votes across the state, including in areas typically dominated by Democrats.

Brown rewrote the state electoral map three years ago by keeping the women’s vote close against a female opponent, eroding a Democrat’s traditional lead in cities, and rolling up big margins among suburban independents. He took 47 percent of the vote in Worcester. He ran far better in Springfield, Fall River, and New Bedford than GOP candidates normally do, and then he turned the suburbs around those cities, which have been safe Democratic towns, Republican. He won at least 60 percent of the vote in 158 cities and towns; that’s a feat unmatched by either Mitt Romney in 2002 or Barack Obama in 2008.

Brown’s January 2010 Senate victory was supposed to mark a new opening for Massachusetts Republicans. It didn’t. That November, Gov. Deval Patrick turned back a challenge from Charlie Baker by recapturing voters that had swung to Brown. The two races saw roughly equal turnout, and the swings between Brown’s special election victory and Patrick’s reelection win illustrate where the battleground lies in the Brown-Warren contest.

Women and independent voters made the difference between Brown topping Coakley and Baker falling short of Patrick. Brown split the female vote with Coakley, but rolled up a 14-point advantage with men; against Baker, Patrick enjoyed a huge margin with women that allowed him to survive losing men badly. The demographic breakdown helps explain why Warren has attacked Brown on national women’s issues, and why Brown enlisted his wife and daughters to defend himself: Brown enjoys a clear edge among male voters, so Warren can’t afford to merely split the women’s vote with him.

Baker couldn’t replicate Brown’s map against Patrick. Baker made weaker showings than Brown in towns where he beat Patrick. He stumbled in cities where Brown had narrowed Democrats’ built-in advantages, falling far behind in places like Springfield, New Bedford, and Holyoke. Baker also struggled on the South Coast. Brown put towns such as Acushnet, Dartmouth, Somerset, and Fairhaven in the GOP column, but Patrick won them easily.

Baker also failed to run up the kind of wide margins with independent voters that Brown did. The spread between Brown and Coakley’s tally among independents was more than twice what it was between Baker and Patrick. Keeping the vote among independent voters relatively close allowed Patrick to ride Massachusetts Democrats’ numerical advantage.

Warren’s job is to make her electoral map look more like Patrick’s than Coakley’s. To weather Brown’s advantage in Boston’s outer suburbs, Warren needs wide margins in Boston and the state’s Gateway Cities, and she needs to capture the suburbs surrounding them. Brown’s greatest coup against Coakley was peeling off gobs of once-solidly Democratic votes around Springfield, Worcester, Fall River, and Lowell; if he can hang on to those votes, Warren is finished.

Warren has spent much of the campaign tending to her base and stoking an organization to turn out voters who supported Obama in 2008, but stayed home for Coakley in 2010. Warren needs these Obama backers to vote the party line, so she has been tying Brown to the national Republican Party.

Brown, on the other hand, has been hustling to convince these voters to split the ticket for him. He has countered Warren’s scathing economic critique with a soft-sell cultural appeal. He has distanced himself from one-time mentor Mitt Romney and played up the support of Democrats such as Ray Flynn. The former male model sold the totem of the affable truck-driving guy from Wrentham before shifting gears and attacking Warren for her Native American claims and her legal work on behalf of big corporations. We’ll know on November 6 whether his strategy is enough to enable Brown to shatter the state’s electoral mold, or whether the junior senator becomes a spectacular, if brief, electoral footnote.        — paul mcmorrow   

Federal vs. state

Health care, gun control, immigration, gay marriage, and climate change policy are all issues that tend to divide along partisan lines. That holds true in the Massachusetts Senate race, too. But with Scott Brown working hard to burnish an image as a moderate Republican in a heavily Democratic state, he has sometimes sought to make the divide less a matter of which side the candidates are on and more a debate about what level of government is the right one for deciding important issues.

Top: Mark M. Murray/The Republican/Landov. Bottom: J. Cappuccio.

Brown says states should determine their own course on many issues because they have a better grasp of how laws impact their businesses and residents socially and economically, while Elizabeth Warren favors a more expansive role for the federal government on problems she says are too big for individual states to address on their own.

Brown opposes federal health care reform, most national gun control efforts, federal benefits for same-sex married couples, and the creation of a comprehensive, national cap-and-trade system for dealing with greenhouse gases. Brown says all of these issues are better addressed by state legislatures, not the federal government. He also supports allowing states to craft their own immigration enforcement laws, like Arizona did.

By contrast, Warren favors a federal approach to most of these issues. She wants to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, reinstitute a federal assault weapons ban, and pass the DREAM Act addressing immigration reform. She supports the Affordable Care Act and, although she hasn’t taken a stance on a national cap-and-trade system, favors giving the Environmental Protection Agency stronger powers to police pollution.

The federal-state split between Brown and Warren cuts many ways politically. Warren’s embrace of a broad federal role runs counter to the growing distrust and animosity many voters have for Washington. Brown, meanwhile, is trying to have it both ways politically. As a state senator, he voted for or supports Massachusetts laws dealing with a number of the issues (health care, an assault weapons ban, and cap-and-trade), but now opposes efforts to address the issues at a national level.

Warren insists many of these problems cannot be effectively tackled solely at the state level. Greenhouse gas emissions, firearms, even health care patients, are not confined to one state’s borders.

Are issues better dealt with at the state or federal level?

For instance, one study earlier this year shows Massachusetts hospitals on or near the New Hampshire border—where 11 percent of residents are uninsured versus 2 percent in Massachusetts—have an influx of uninsured out-of-state patients that use the emergency rooms and add to the hospitals’ growing debt.

Confining guns to state borders is problematic as well. Of the nearly 1,800 guns used in crimes that were recovered in Massachusetts in 2011, only 351 of the 1,020 that could be traced came from Massachusetts, according to a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The remainder came from 43 other states.

Proponents of a national cap-and-trade system say it is the best way to deal with greenhouse gases that can emanate from one state and drifts across state borders with no regard for regulatory controls. Opponents, like Brown, say it puts the country at an economic disadvantage and should only be regulated by states, who know best what their business sector can deal with. Brown has indicated he would support his party’s push to remove the EPA from overseeing greenhouse gases.

“The whole structure of the Clean Air Act is to say pollution is regulated by the EPA,” says Seth Kaplan, vice president for policy and climate advocacy at the pro-environment Conservation Law Foundation. “The idea that Congress would rescind that authority would be absurd, bordering on insane.”

Kevin Donnelly, a political science professor at Bridgewater State University, says Brown hasn’t been hurt by his pro-local positions. On health care, for example, Brown initially ran for Senate in 2010 as the “41st vote” against national health care reform even though the Bay State law on which it is modeled is popular among Massachusetts residents and Brown supported it as a state senator. “Scott Brown was so popular in Massachusetts when he first ran, you almost got the impression that Massachusetts citizens dismissed [his position] because we’ve already taken care of ourselves,” Donnelly says.

But Donnelly thinks Massachusetts voters are generally more willing to support a larger federal role in addressing issues, especially ones that have already been passed into law here.  “There is a fairly broad acceptance [of federal authority] on most issues right now because of the popular support for the current administration,” he says.  — jack sullivan

The middle class

The Massachusetts middle class is in a funk, squeezed by shrinking earnings and soaring costs for education, health care, and housing. The US Senate race promises to turn on which candidate voters think can do the most for the middle class.

Both Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have gone to great lengths to show they have an understanding of middle-class concerns. Warren lets audiences know, at every turn, that she grew up on “the ragged edge of the middle class.” Brown gave book-length treatment to the horrors of a poverty-choked childhood that included domestic as well as sexual abuse, and he recalls the tough times in a television ad while steering his famous truck. Both Brown and Warren have played up their roots.Even if neither was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth, Brown projects a much more natural appeal. Voters respond to his everyman persona. We don’t hire a senator to fold towels, as Brown does in one TV ad, but we may like the idea that such tasks aren’t beneath him. Warren is more direct, saying over and over again in person and in ads that Brown sides with big corporations. In one of her ads, Arthur Ramalho, the Lowell boxing trainer who worked the corner for championship fighter Micky Ward, says Warren is different: “She’s fighting for people who are up against it, working people, the middle class.”

Warren came to public prominence during her bruising, high-profile battle to create the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the aftermath of the national financial crisis. The Harvard Law professor lost her bid to head up the new office, but she can claim credit for being present at the creation of the first agency established to educate Americans about the responsibilities and the risks associated with student loans, credit cards, mortgages, and other financial instruments that have hamstrung the middle class over the past decade.

Warren’s job creation framework hews closely to traditional Democratic ideas about injecting federal funds into public works projects to build employment opportunities. Her ‘Rebuild Now’ proposal echoes President Obama’s stimulus plan, with its emphasis on using federal dollars to kick-start the construction sector and rebuild the state’s neglected infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, and the like.

She would rely on cuts elsewhere, such as ending subsidies to oil companies, to finance public works projects. She supports the Buffett Rule, which would have millionaires pay at least a 30 percent tax rate, and wants to end the Bush-era tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 per year. She has no qualms about Obamacare.

True to his Republican roots, Brown is firm believer in the power of private enterprise. “To spur economic growth and job creation, we must get spending under control and pass a balanced budget amendment, stop threatening small business with higher taxes, and unleash our private sector job creators so they can grow and add jobs,” he said in a statement in early September.

An eager supporter of small business owners, he introduced “crowdfunding” legislation, which would allow small businesses to raise up to $1 million online from small and larger investors through a SEC-regulated portal. President Obama signed the bill this past spring. Brown does not support tax hikes on the wealthy or anyone else and opposes a middle class-only tax cut for people earning less than $250,000. He supports the repeal of Obamacare, calling it “bad for jobs.”

Warren believes that Washington has a role to play in coming to the rescue of the beleaguered middle class on a host of economic issues. Brown thinks middle-class success depends on the feds backing off and letting the private sector take the lead with a minimum of regulatory roadblocks. Whether Brown or Warren triumphs in November could rest on how Massachusetts voters view the role of the federal government in making life easier back home in the Bay State. — GABRIELLE GURLEY