Democrats fret about weak challenge to Brown

National party looks beyond current field, wishing on a star

‘We believe that the state is one that we will win, and we expect to have a good, strong candidate within weeks,’ Senator Patty Murray said. ‘We believe that the state is one that we will win, and we expect to have a good, strong candidate within weeks,’ Senator Patty Murray said.
By Glen Johnson and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON — National Democrats anxious to attract a prominent candidate who can defeat Republican US Senator Scott Brown are splitting from state Democrats — including Governor Deval Patrick — who favor a broad field and a contested party primary campaign.

US Senator Patty Murray of Washington, in charge of recruiting Senate candidates for the Democratic Party, highlighted the break Thursday, saying the national party is “talking to a number of candidates’’ in the Bay State. “We believe that the state is one that we will win, and we expect to have a good, strong candidate within weeks,’’ Murray told reporters.

The comment overlooked the four Democrats who have already declared their candidacies to take on Brown: Newton Mayor Setti Warren, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, Democratic activist Bob Massie of Somerville, and Salem immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco.

Warren refused comment, and a Khazei spokesman said in a statement, “He is focused right now on talking to Bay Staters about the issues and their concerns and is not spending time pondering who else may or may not run in 2012.’’

Nonetheless, one Massachusetts Democrat said the Khazei campaign had privately urged the committee Murray leads to stop casting aspersions on the field and instead focus its criticism on Brown. Khazei’s staff is concerned about the effect of Murray’s comments on fund-raising.

Massie said: “It’s disappointing for a group 500 miles away to try to pick a candidate for Massachusetts.’’

DeFranco said national party figures have a “superhero syndrome — they think somebody is going to fly in here with a cape and defeat Scott Brown.’’

She added: “It’s not going to happen that way.’’

Though the current crop of candidates is not nearly as well known, Brown was virtually unknown outside his state Senate district a month before he won the January 2010 special election to replace the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Next year, Brown will be seeking his first full six-year term.

Patrick declared Thursday that the incumbent senator is “eminently beatable,’’ labeled the group of prospective Democratic challengers “great,’’ and repeated that he has no intention of being the big-foot candidate the national Democrats continue to seek.

The governor has also promised to not endorse any candidate early, saying a contested primary — like the one he faced in 2006 — will boost the party by elevating the statewide profiles of the candidates and producing a trail-tested winner who can take on Brown.’’

It was, actually, pretty good for me, not just the outcome, but the whole business of learning how to be a candidate, and how to deal with the barbs and the unexpected, and then having to build or broaden the coalition after we won,’’ Patrick told the Globe during an interview. “That’s not bad for Democrats. It’s nothing to be afraid of.’’

But national Democrats, hoping to preserve if not expand their 53-47 Senate majority, do not appear eager to risk the race on the emergence of lesser-known talent. They lost control of the US House in last year’s midterm elections and are concerned Obama could be paralyzed in a second term if his party lost the Senate, too.

“This race is the Democrats’ single best opportunity to pick up a Republican seat and [national leaders] don’t feel they have a candidate who can do that,’’ said Jennifer Duffy, who studies Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “If they did, they’d be working with that person.’’

State and national party leaders denied any rift over recruitment yesterday.

Matt Canter, spokesman for the group Murray heads, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said: “Whether there is a primary is a moot point, because Scott Brown is demonstrating himself to be very beatable.’’

He also said a DSCC analysis found that in the 20 most recent Senate seats to change parties, the winning candidate in 16 of them was not in the race at this point in the election cycle.

“From the Massachusetts Democratic Party, we’re neither encouraging nor discouraging candidates,’’ said party Chairman John Walsh. “I believe that we have good candidates. There’s no question the voters don’t know them yet, but that’s what we have 18 months to do.’’

State Democrats are gathering June 4 in Lowell for their annual convention, and the four declared Senate candidates are slated to make five-minute speeches.

Murray declined to name any potential Massachusetts candidate being recruited by her group or other national Democrats, but many state and national activists are pining for Harvard professor and Obama adviser Elizabeth Warren to run.

Warren, who is setting up the consumer financial protection bureau created by Wall Street reform legislation, is unlikely to be confirmed to a permanent position as the bureau’s director because of Republican opposition.

Warren has refused to rule out a campaign. Asked about her interest, she has issued a standard political non-denial by saying she is focused on her current job.

Ongoing recruiting by national Democrats is “a strong rebuke to the current field,’’ said one of Brown’s top advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom. “I think it’s fair to say Scott Brown takes his potential opponents more seriously than does the Democratic Party.’’

Democrats in all quarters are looking at the Massachusetts Senate seat with new enthusiasm, saying events of the past several months have exposed Brown as politically vulnerable despite the Republican’s large campaign war chest of more than $8 million.

Part of the Democrats’ new confidence comes from Brown’s recent stumbles. The senator suffered a self-inflicted public relations embarrassment after the killing of Osama bin Laden, when he claimed in a TV interview that he had seen photographs of bin Laden’s corpse. Brown soon admitted the pictures were fakes and has not explained how a US senator on the Armed Services Committee could have been duped by such a hoax.

Then earlier this month, Brown told a group of local business leaders he would vote for the House Republican budget that includes dramatic changes to Medicare, the popular and expensive medical program for seniors. He later said he hadn’t meant the remarks to stake out what his final position would be. In the end, he was one of five Republican senators to vote against the budget bill.

At the same time, Democrats say the political winds that were in their faces in the 2010 mid-terms have shifted, primarily over the Medicare issue.

Democrats are ebullient over their victory in Tuesday’s special House election in a New York district that typically leans Republican. The Democrat in that race, Kathy Hochul, pounded the GOP candidate over the Republican plan to phase out Medicare in its current form and install a voucher-based program.

“As the ground has shifted for us over the past six months and people have been on the receiving end of the Republican agenda . . . it has reenergized a number of people who may have passed on running for election in the past,’’ said Murray. “That’s happening in Massachusetts as well as other states.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Glen Johnson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globeglen. top stories on Twitter

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