Joan Vennochi

Senate race already in the gutter

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / May 15, 2011

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REPUBLICAN SCOTT Brown came out of nowhere in 2010 to win the US Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for decades. A Democrat who comes out of nowhere could win it back in 2012.

But the anti-Brown attack ad launched recently by the League of Women Voters isn’t going to help. It may thrill the liberal base, but it also threatens to chill the independent swing vote that both a Republican and a Democratic candidate need to win in Massachusetts.

Why is Brown drawing attention to the League’s ad a full 18 months before election day? Not because it hurts him, but because it helps him. It reminds people of the unflattering “League of Women Vultures’’ moniker that detractors like to use to describe the organization. And, its depiction of a coughing, rasping child who is suffering because of Brown’s vote against air pollution standards illustrates the same old stereotypical scare tactics that turn off voters of all ideological persuasions.

The league’s simultaneous attack on Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri doesn’t change the underlying problem of this approach: Will voters see this as cutting through the clutter, as the league contends, or getting into the gutter, just like everyone else?

If Brown’s 2010 victory teaches anything, it’s that energy beats apathy and positive beats negative.

His path to stunning victory is often short-handed to barn jacket, truck, and kitchen. Those were the props of warm and humorous campaign ads that cultivated approving thoughts about a candidate few voters knew much about when he first got in the race. It’s also now part of Massachusetts political lore that Martha Coakley, his Democratic opponent, was an uninspired candidate who ran a flat campaign.

That facile narrative obscures other factors at work in their showdown. Massachusetts voters were tired of the standard political menu served up for decades in the state. Brown looked and sounded different from the norm and that was appealing.

To many voters, it still is, up to a point.

Brown can’t run for reelection solely on the same simplistic message and images of 2010. He has votes and a gaffe or two to explain. But likability matters in politics and so does money. Brown still has both, with high favorability ratings in recent polls and an $8 million campaign war chest prove it. To beat that, Democrats need some new tricks, because the old ones won’t work.

Bombarding the airwaves with scary ads won’t beat Brown. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tried it in the 2010 special election, and it helped Brown, not Coakley. Neither will complaints that Brown supported extension of the Bush tax cuts — so did President Obama and Senator John Kerry. As for the beefcake photos he took while he was a Boston College law student — women have to get over the fact that female candidates are measured by different standards. Beefcake didn’t take Brown down in 2010, and it won’t take him down in 2012. Most voters will also defer to Brown’s judgment when it comes to his decision against revealing the identity of the camp counselor he said molested him when he was a young boy.

Still, Brown’s being duped over photos that supposedly showed Osama bin Laden’s dead body starts to show that the emperor has no clothes. Brown looked naive and perhaps even dishonest by suggesting he had viewed them as part of an official briefing. He is refusing to give any more information about what he did see and who showed it to him.

His now-established pattern of taking confusing stands before he actually votes on controversial issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ funding for Planned Parenthood, or extension of unemployment compensation also demonstrates a cuteness that has nothing to do with cover-boy looks. That’s Brown’s vulnerability, along with a refusal to directly address questions he doesn’t like.

But the Democrat who wants to win will paint Brown as dodgy, not extreme. The Democrat who wants to win will tell the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to stop its juvenile approach to Brown baiting.

The Democrat who wants to win will take the fight directly to Brown, and not rely on sympathetic friends like the League of Women Voters.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at