Scot Lehigh

A real challenger to Brown?

By Scot Lehigh
May 13, 2011

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THERE’S AN odd dynamic at play as the US Senate race for Scott Brown’s seat starts to take shape. National Democrats think winning the seat could prove essential to retaining control of the Senate — but local Democrats are treating the freshman Republican as though he were a colossus astride the political landscape.

There’s room for a well-informed, hard-working iconoclastic Republican moderate from Massachusetts in the US Senate, particularly at a time when the long-term budget deficit is front and center on the national agenda. But to date, Brown hasn’t been that kind of figure. Rather, his developing reputation is as a lawmaker who doesn’t dig in on the issues, a senator who is more sizzle than steak.

As a politician, Brown is more about finessing difficult issues than taking tough stands. Rather than getting out front early and trying to shape the discussion, Brown is often late to take a position on thorny matters. His press team not only strives to restrict his exposure to tough questions, they often limit communications to short, noncommittal statements or decline to comment altogether. Witness the minimalist response to follow-up inquiries after last week’s stumble over the doctored bin Laden photos.

In short, Brown has yet to grow into the job and could be vulnerable to the right challenger. So where is that challenger? Nowhere to be seen. The figures who would be attention-getting first-tier candidates — Governor Deval Patrick, Vicki Kennedy, and former US Representative Martin Meehan, to name three — have no interest.

Nor, apparently, do other Beacon Hill figures who would clear the plausibility threshold: Secretary of State William F. Galvin and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray. And of a 10-member Democratic US House delegation, the only figures to display any interest in running, Stephen Lynch and Mike Capuano, are among the hardest to imagine as a senator.

Although the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has at least tried to recruit a plausible candidate, entreating Meehan to run, we haven’t seen a similar effort from Patrick’s political team or the White House. Instead, the field has been left to ambitious long shots: second-year Newton Mayor Setti Warren; Bob Massie, last seen on a ticket crushed under a landslide in 1994; Marisa DeFranco, a Salem lawyer; and citizen activist Alan Khazei, who ran an interesting but underfunded race last time around.

Here’s one barometer of the unpersuasive nature of the field so far: Some Democrats are excited that former state Senator Warren Tolman is mulling a run. His last two political bids? An unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1998 and a failed campaign for governor in 2002.

To maximize their chances of beating Brown, the Democratic powers-that-be need to abandon their hands-off policy and launch a concerted effort to recruit a candidate with potential star power. The person who would best fit the bill is Elizabeth Warren, the presidential adviser who effectively oversees the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. One plan under contemplation is to have Obama nominate her for agency director. If confirmed, he’d have a top-notch appointee; if, as likely, Warren was blocked by Senate Republicans, that battle could elevate her for a run against Brown.

But no decision has been arrived at. Further, the calculus may change because of the recent declaration by 44 Senate Republicans that they won’t consider any nominee for director until the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is restructured. As US Representative Barney Frank notes, that stance opens the door for Obama to sidestep the confirmation process with a recess appointment. If Warren received such an appointment, however, it would preclude a Senate bid.

But the Democrats’ chore can’t stop at recruitment. Given the cluttered field, the president, the governor, and the congressional delegation will also have to coalesce around that person, sending an unmistakable message that she or he is the party’s best shot to unseat Brown.

Do I think that will happen? In a word, no. Patrick, for one, seems content to let a half-dozen smaller candidacies bloom.

And yet it would be the kind of move you’d see from a party truly determined to retake the Senate seat Brown now holds.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at