A Brown-Warren US Senate matchup could rival Weld-Kerry battle royale

Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Governor William F. Weld and Senator John Kerry take notes during an October 1996 debate at Stonehill College, their sixth meeting in an epic campaign.

Should Elizabeth Warren be fortunate enough to win the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s US Senate nomination next year, state voters could see an election contest that rivals the concurrent presidential campaign.

Supporters of the Republican incumbent, Senator Scott Brown, have already branded the Harvard Law School professor a “militant liberal.” They have ridiculed her website image of Boston for being taken from the Cambridge side of the Charles River. And they have even secured the domain name “QueenElizabethWarren” to fuel their caricature, should it become necessary.

But with her first campaign stop today—her first day as an official primary candidate—Warren is signaling she, too, is looking ahead. And that she’s also itching for a fight.

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That first stop is in South Boston, at the Broadway T stop. It’s just down the street from the intersection where Brown helped create his iconic “everyman” image in the 2010 Senate special election campaign, shaking hands and waving at passersby in what could traditionally be considered Democratic territory.

Elizabeth Warren
Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

In the video announcing her candidacy being released this morning, Warren eschews the ivory tower in favor of a populist pitch.

The video is viewable here.

In the video announcing her candidacy released this morning, Warren eschews the ivory tower in favor of a populist pitch.

“I’m going to do this,” she declares. Middle-class families, says Warren, have been “chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered for a generation now, and I don’t think Washington gets it.”

She adds: “The pressures on middle class families are worse than ever, but it is the big corporations that get their way in Washington. I want to change that. I will work my heart out to earn the trust of the people of Massachusetts.”

Not since the Weld-Kerry race in 1996 could Massachusetts see a general election campaign like this.

As in that battle royale between two bluebloods, then-Governor William F. Weld and still-Senator John Kerry, the candidates would be well-financed, nationally supported, and adept at debating.

Like Brown, Weld had tremendous personal appeal, with voters seemingly entranced by his devil-may-care attitude and his decidedly non-Cantabrigian persona.

And like Warren, Kerry was viewed as too stiff to connect, especially in contrast with Weld.

But Kerry ended up besting Weld on the strength of his personal campaigning, the experience of the large cadre of Democratic operatives, and an electorate that still tilted to the left despite being in the outset of electing Republican governors for 16 consecutive years.

Warren’s first challenge, though, is to overcome a field of a half-dozen challengers who are incensed the party establishments in both Washington and Boston have largely pooh-poohed campaigns in which they have put their lives on hold to stump around the state and beg for money to finance their travels.

They not see Warren—despite being a first-time candidate—as not only the favorite of partisan organizations such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but also inside-the-Beltway fund-raising groups such as EMILY’s List.

The knife was barely sheathed in one statement reacting to the news yesterday that Warren would become a candidate.

“The fact is that Setti Warren is the strongest candidate in this race to go toe-to-toe with Scott Brown,” said Chuck Gilboy, a spokesman for Newton Mayor Setti Warren. “He is an Iraq War veteran, and a mayor who has helped to create jobs in his own community. ...This doesn’t change our strategy; Democratic voters want to nominate a candidate who can beat Scott Brown.

Brookline Democrat Alan Khazei, co-founder of the City Year youth-enrichment program, was a bit more diplomatic.

“I welcome Elizabeth Warren into the race and believe that competition is good for the Democratic Party and the Commonwealth,” he said. “Over the next year we will have a full and thoughtful debate, and ultimately the voters will decide who will be the most effective senator.”

Senator Scott Brown
Stephan Savoia/AP

In that 2010 special election, Attorney General Martha Coakley also had the backing of the Democratic establishment. She, too, assembled an experienced team, and made all the right pre-campaign moves.

They included polling with a secret federal bank account, and buying all her federal campaign materials with a state account before transferring them over to a federal account once she officially entered the race.

Nonetheless, Coakley lost the race, in large measure because Brown outcampaigned her and also succeeded in branding her as an out-of-touch elitist.

The plan for Warren is virtually identical.

Should the professor win the primary, expect Brown to label her an out-of-touch academic in the mold of another law school professor, President Obama.

Expect Brown ads to show snapshots of his recent National Guard service in Afghanistan, and contrast that with Warren’s tenure setting up an Obama administration consumer watchdog agency.

And expect the incumbent to rekindle his connection to the powerful Tea Party by labeling a liberal Democrat such as Warren the greatest threat to his oft-pivotal 41st Republican vote in the Senate.

Democrats, meanwhile, are buoyed by two things: the searing experience of their special-election loss, and the belief that Governor Deval Patrick’s reelection last fall portends continued strength —and the prospect of a turnout far exceeding that in the Senate special election—when voters go to the polls in November 2012.

In addition to casting Brown as a defender of Wall Street and Warren as the guardian of Main Street, Democrats are already accusing the incumbent of legislating against the interests of his own state with votes against summer youth funding or an unemployment benefits extension.

Until then, Brown has the luxury of avoiding a contentious primary and husbanding his resources to dispense when—and where—he sees fit.

Warren, meanwhile, must first overcome a fractious primary field. In the process, the professor will have to prove she can take a punch as well as deliver a blow.