Warren Wages ‘War of Imagery’ to Claim Brown Senate Seat

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren, the Obama administration adviser on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, testifies during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in Washington on July 14, 2011. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown drives a GMC pickup while Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren has a hybrid Ford SUV. She rakes in Hollywood cash. He draws on Wall Street. He calls her elitist. She brands him extremist.

In what’s shaping up to be the costliest Senate race in Massachusetts history, at a projected $40 million, Brown, 52, and Warren, 62, are waging what Boston University mass communication professor John Carroll calls “a war of imagery” to win votes.

It’s a battle fought in terms of association, Carroll said. “She’s trying to paint him as politically out of step and he’s trying to paint her as culturally out of step.”

Senate control may hinge on the outcome, says Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. The Tea Party-fueled capture of the seat long held by Democrat Ted Kennedy in January 2010 prefaced a Republican resurgence to seize the U.S. House later that year. Brown is now seeking a full term and Warren -- the Harvard Law School professor passed over by President Barack Obama to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she helped create -- has one of the best shots to take back what her party lost, Rothenberg said.

The contest will be close, he said. A high turnout driven by Obama’s bid for re-election Nov. 6, in a state with three Democrats for each Republican, will boost Warren’s chances, he said. That makes Massachusetts his pick for the Democrats’ “easiest win” as they try to keep a four-vote Senate margin.

Brown the Usurper

Vengeance colors the race as well, with Brown viewed by Democrats as a usurper when he became the first Republican elected to the Senate from Massachusetts since Edward Brooke won re-election in 1972.

“People were in a state of clinical depression,” Philip Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said of the reaction to Brown’s win. “Uppers and alcohol were the only ways we could deal with it.”

Recent polls suggest Warren has work to do, assuming she wins her party’s nomination for the seat. Brown’s strategy, casting himself as a moderate who, in his own words, “can work across the aisle,” has helped him. The incumbent, who faces no Republican opponent, leads the Democrat two-to-one among the state’s largest voting bloc, its 2 million independents.

“More people feel connected to him,” said David Paleologos, a Suffolk University pollster in Boston.

Independent Voters

Brown had a 60 percent to 28 percent advantage with independents, a Feb. 11-15 Suffolk survey of 600 registered voters showed. A Feb. 23-March 1 Western New England University poll also gave Brown an advantage with independents, 58 percent to 29 percent.

Among all voters, Warren trailed with 40 percent to Brown’s 49 percent in the Suffolk survey. The breakdown in the Western New England poll of 527 registered voters was 49 percent for Brown, 41 percent for Warren. The margin of error in the Suffolk survey was plus or minus 4 percentage points and in the Western New England poll, it was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Warren’s entry drew wide attention, chasing several other prominent Democrats out of the primary campaign. She has appeared on cable television’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show,” where host Jon Stewart flirted with her. A video clip went viral on the Web last year, depicting her making remarks to supporters upbraiding wealthy Americans who forget that taxpayers helped them to succeed.

‘Cult Hero’

All that has made her “a national cult hero for liberals,” said Rothenberg, the publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report newsletter.

“She has the spirit of Ted Kennedy,” said Barbara Lee, a philanthropist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an early Warren supporter. “Her goal is to make a difference.”

For Warren, her first bid for elective office is a way to further a career that she says has been based on sticking up for everyday people.

“I’ve been working for middle-class families all my life and that’s what I want to go to Washington to do,” said Warren, a bankruptcy law expert, in an interview. “I’ve been talking about family economic issues pretty much for decades now.”

Brown, who cast his 2010 campaign as an effort to wrest the Senate seat away from entrenched political interests and return it to the people of Massachusetts, hasn’t shied from embracing the Kennedy legacy. In a surprise appearance at a groundbreaking for Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute in April, his comments about the late senator’s dedication to public service and sense of humor earned him a hug from Kennedy’s son, Patrick.

Blunt Debate

More recently, Brown cited his predecessor’s support for letting religious beliefs trump health-care mandates in backing a Senate measure to let employers refuse to provide insurance for medicines or procedures, based on moral convictions. Patrick Kennedy asked Brown to stop airing an advertisement that he said distorted his father’s position on the issue. Brown refused. The measure was voted down a few days later.

Warren knocked Brown as an extremist for backing the legislation, sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri. She labeled the move an attempt to “roll back the clock” on women’s health care.

Brown cast his position as a defense of the Constitution’s separation of church and state. As he promised he would in his 2010 campaign, he voted against Obama’s health-care overhaul, which she supports.

Warren has endorsed the Buffett rule, an Obama proposal to tax those making $1 million or more a year at a minimum 30 percent rate. Brown opposes the measure, prompting Warren to accuse him of “protecting millionaires.”

War Policy

Brown, a Massachusetts National Guard lieutenant colonel who has been to Afghanistan, supported Obama’s 30,000-troop surge there and his plans for withdrawal, under careful monitoring, according to Colin Reed, a spokesman. On her campaign website, Warren says of the war, “we need to get out as quickly as possible.”

Warren supports same-sex marriage. Brown’s position isn’t as clear.

“He thinks the debate in Massachusetts is over, it’s settled law, it’s time to move on,” Reed said, declining further comment on the issue. A state Supreme Judicial Court ruling made such weddings legal in 2003. In December, Brown voted to end the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on sexual orientation.

“This election is an historic struggle between two very different points of view,” Johnston said in an interview.

Bicoastal Battle

It’s also a contest that pits Wall Street and industry political action committees who back Brown against unions and Hollywood celebrities who support Warren.

Spending by the candidates may top $40 million, making it the costliest campaign in state history, according to Douglas Weber of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization in Washington that tracks campaign finance. Brown and Warren raised a combined $17.5 million last year, according to center data.

Brown pulled in almost $8.61 million, with 59 percent of that coming from Massachusetts sources, center figures show. About $1.14 million arrived from political-action committees, while he got almost $636,000 from donors in New York and $485,000 from Washington-area supporters.

Warren raised almost $8.92 million last year, 60 percent of it from out-of-state, according to center figures. Lawyers were her biggest donor group, giving her almost $700,000, while PACs provided about $142,000, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

Celebrity Support

Almost 15 percent of what Warren raised from major metropolitan areas in 2011 came from Los Angeles-Long Beach or San Francisco, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. The fundraising trips to California helped her net more than $200,000 from entertainment-world celebrities, AP said.

Barbra Streisand, Ron Howard, Vidal Sassoon, Gary Shandling and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive officer of Dreamworks Animation SKG Inc., are some of the names, Federal Election Commission records show. Warren also received $2,500 from George Soros, the billionaire investor.

Brown, who got about $15,000 from entertainment figures, pulled in more than $880,000 from the financial industry, including people tied to Fidelity Investments and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as well as venture capital and private equity firms, AP said. Warren got about $175,000 from similar sources.

Senate Ranking

As Warren wrapped up her latest Hollywood trip last week, Brown stood at the Joseph Leon Mottolo Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Revere, on Boston’s outskirts, warning a roomful of former soldiers and sailors about cuts in their health care. He detoured into an appraisal of his legislative independence.

“I vote with my party 54 percent of the time,” Brown said, referring to last year’s CQ Roll Call rating. In 2010, he voted with Republicans on contentious issues 78 percent of the time, according to the publisher in Washington.

“Scott Brown is attempting to draw a picture of himself that is very flattering but inaccurate,” said John Walsh, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman. If he wins, Brown will more closely toe the Republican line, Walsh said.

Based on rankings by the National Journal, Brown was the third “most liberal” Senate Republican last year, trailing only Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who decided against seeking re-election in November.

The Massachusetts race offers Democrats one of their few chances to pick up a Senate seat to mitigate expected losses this year as they try to keep their majority. The Democrats are defending 21 seats in November, plus two held by independents who caucus with them, compared with 10 for Republicans.

Crossover Votes

While he won election amid a groundswell of antipathy toward Obama and lawmakers in Washington, Brown has cast votes in favor of measures such as the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul backed by Warren and extending the payroll tax cut this year. Both were priorities for Obama.

Brown has supported Democratic measures such as funding for Planned Parenthood and voted against a Medicare overhaul proposed by Republican Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. The senator was the only member of his party to vote for Obama nominee Richard Cordray to head the new consumer bureau that Warren helped set up.

As a referendum on the incumbent, the case to replace Brown hasn’t been made, according to Jack Beatty, a news analyst for WBUR-FM radio’s “On Point” show in Boston.

Brown hasn’t “really messed up with the voters” to motivate them to seek a change, Beatty said. “I’m still waiting for her to give me a reason. She’s for the middle-class? And he’s not?”

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