At a breakfast with Elizabeth Warren supporters two weeks ago, Chet Jakubiak, chairman of the Democratic town committee in Grafton, Massachusetts, took the microphone and raised an issue the candidate and her campaign rarely do.
“It is long past due that this commonwealth has sent a woman to the United States Senate,” he told the crowd of about 75 gathered in the second-floor meeting room of the Grafton Inn.
A win would make Warren, the presumptive Democratic nominee, the first woman the state has sent to the U.S. Senate, and just its fifth to Congress. Massachusetts is the only state in New England, except Rhode Island, to have never elected a woman to the Senate or the governorship. Warren’s bid to unseat Republican Senator Scott Brown also could influence which party controls the chamber.
Her gender may be her biggest asset -- or her greatest liability, political strategists say.
“What is irrefutable is that Massachusetts has a glass ceiling. Elizabeth Warren seems to have everything you need to shatter it,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant not aligned with the campaign.
Massachusetts’ political reputation was built on the groundbreaking civil rights advocacy of former President John F. Kennedy and his brothers, and former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s opposition to Republican President Ronald Reagan and the Vietnam War. The state became the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004 and its health-care mandate, signed into law by the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, served as a template for President Barack Obama’s federal overhaul.
Still, voters have never elected a woman to the position Warren seeks. Just one of its 10-member U.S. House delegation is a woman and two hold statewide executive office. At 25 percent, the proportion of women in its state legislature puts it behind 22 states and last among its New England neighbors, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“The conventional wisdom of this race is Massachusetts is liberal” and that President Barack Obama’s name at the top of ballot will boost turnout and push Warren over the victory line, said Marsh. “No, it’s not a liberal state; it doesn’t elect women; and Obama alone isn’t enough.”
Warren, 62, the architect of Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a Harvard University professor, stood outside Dinky’s Blue Belle Diner in Shrewsbury and recalled what growing up as the only sister to three brothers taught her about gender politics.
“Get tough or die. I’m serious -- it’s get tough or fold and my answer was get tough,” said Warren, who recently attended a joint fundraiser in Austin with four other presumptive Democratic candidates whom, if elected to the Senate in November, would become the first woman to do so in their states -- Wisconsin, Nevada, Hawaii and North Dakota. Female representation in Congress is at a record 17 percent while still lower than most developed countries, according to Rutgers.
Among the hurdles for women seeking statewide office is one common in many states: the absence of term limits -- former Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy held his post for almost five decades.
Structural reasons, some unique to Massachusetts, also contribute to the dearth of statewide female politicians, said Leanne Doherty, a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston. They include restrictive campaign finance regulations that can make it harder to raise money for people starting out, and there is the problem of an “old boys’ club,” she said.
“Massachusetts has one of the most entrenched political machines in the country still,” Doherty said. “This idea of Massachusetts being progressive in a lot of ways doesn’t apply to perceptions of female leadership.”
Of course, there have been times when women candidates have erred and sealed their own fates. Attorney General Martha Coakley in early polls was well ahead of Brown in the 2010 special election held after Kennedy’s death. Her candidacy began a decline after he aggressively stumped the state and plummeted after she inaccurately claimed former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who helped the team win a pennant victory over the New York Yankees in 2004, was a Yankees fan.
Brown, 52, is once again canvassing the state for votes in his contest with Warren. He doesn’t look at the election “as a gender issue,” he said.
Qualifications Not Gender
“I look at it as a qualification and a track record issue,” he said. “The people of Massachusetts -- that’s what I’ve always appreciated about them -- they’re going to vote for the most qualified person and that’s what I encourage them to do.”
Brown was in Worcester, the state’s second biggest city, picking up the endorsement of its former female mayor, following that of Boston’s former male mayor. Both are Democrats who crossed party lines to back the Republican incumbent.
Back on the campaign trail in the green pick-up truck he used two years ago to convey a working man’s image during the Coakley race, Brown highlights bill signings he attended at the White House as proof of his commitment to bipartisanship. He co-sponsored the two measures with Democrats.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, 51 percent of the electorate isn’t registered with either party. An analysis by Tim Vercellotti, who directs the Western New England University Polling Institute in Springfield, found that self-identified independents are split almost evenly between men and women, 49 percent to 51 percent.
While more recent surveys by other pollsters show a tighter race, Vercellotti’s last poll, conducted Feb. 23 to March 1, found Brown leading Warren among all voters 49 percent to 41 percent. Independent voters overall and independent women favored Brown 2 to 1.
“Generally speaking, one expects to see a gender gap in which women tend to favor the Democratic candidate and men tend to favor the Republican,” he said. “In our poll, Warren led Brown by 4 points among all women voters. She needs to get that margin into the double digits to win.”
A May 8 Rasmussen Reports poll also found a tight contest, with Warren and Brown tied at 45 percent.
Warren’s campaign doesn’t typically hold events specifically targeted toward women. On April 29, at multiple campaign stops, Warren delivered various versions of a speech on economic justice that went viral on YouTube last year.
“We have a real choice in this election -- the other side has laid out clearly where they want to go,” she said to a packed Coffee Loft in Marlborough. “Do we want to be a country of ‘I got mine, the rest of you are on your own’? Or do we want to be a country that says, ‘We celebrate success. We believe that every one of us needs to pay forward so we create the right decisions so that the next kid has a chance to make it big and the kid after that and the kid after that?’”
Warren’s background as a consumer advocate and decades spent researching how government policies impact the middle class will help her sway voters, said Barbara Lee, who founded an eponymous foundation devoted to researching and boosting female participation in politics.
A study by her foundation showed that female candidates are more successful when they demonstrate strength on economic and defense issues. “Especially in hard times people understand that it’s women who balance the checkbook,” said Lee, who encouraged Warren to run.