Scott Brown trumpets his bipartisan record on television and in stump speeches, rarely mentioning that he’s a Republican in his U.S. Senate re-election bid in Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber his party 3-to-1.
The senator has sought to make that imbalance work for him, appealing to voters who favor political diversity as he tries to retain the seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years. As the sole Republican in Congress from the state, Brown has targeted independents, who make up 53 percent of the electorate.
“Whatever party you belong to, being an independent voter means you understand that there are issues and duties in this country bigger than any party,” Brown, 53, said last month at a meeting of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce near Boston. “It’s going to take the best ideas of both parties, and the best qualities of those we send to Washington.”
Brown won seven elections in a land long dominated by Democrats and beat one of their own, Attorney General Martha Coakley, for the Senate seat in January 2010. Now he’s pitching his bipartisan credentials to those who see a value in having at least one Bay State Republican in the congressional mix. His opponent, Elizabeth Warren, gained star status among Democrats by attacking Wall Street and defending consumers.
The race is among the nation’s most closely watched and has been fueled by $47.7 million in campaign donations through mid-August, much of it from out of state, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The candidates have traded the lead in polls this year, with Warren edging Brown among likely voters 50 percent to 44 percent in a Western New England University survey released yesterday. Brown still led with independents, 57 percent to 35 percent.
“He’s something different for Massachusetts,” said Jessica Murphy, 34 and a stay-at-home mother from Boston who voted for Brown in 2010. “He’s not just voting for the left. He’s listening to what people want. I think he’s great for Massachusetts.”
Bay State voters tend to back Democrats. John Kerry has served as the commonwealth’s other U.S. senator since 1985. Barack Obama crushed Republican John McCain in 2008, 61 percent to 36 percent. Democrats have held sway in the state legislature since before Brown was born in 1959.
Yet Massachusetts voters tend to maintain a check on the party’s power. Before Democrat Deval Patrick succeeded Mitt Romney, this year’s Republican presidential nominee, as governor in 2007, the minority party held the state’s top office for 26 of the previous 42 years. Brown won the special Senate election by 5 percentage points with 2.2 million votes cast.
“The very unusual circumstances of his winning the seat -- nobody expected it because it’s such a heavily Democratic state -- has given Brown a little more visibility and clout, certainly in the Republican caucus in the Senate,” said James O’Toole, a local historian at Boston College.
“It’s obviously considerably less than what Kennedy had -- he’s in the minority, not the majority -- but some other freshman Republican senator wouldn’t have the influence that Brown has been able to have on that side of the aisle,” O’Toole said. Kennedy died in office in August 2009.
The challenge for Warren, a 63-year-old Harvard Law School professor, is to persuade voters that by supporting her they can help prevent partisan gridlock should Obama win re-election. Democrats control a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Warren helped Obama create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the housing meltdown that fed the longest recession since the Depression.
“This election is going to be about who stands on the side of middle-class voters,” said Alethea Harney, a spokeswoman for the Democrat. “Elizabeth Warren has fought for working men and women and small businesses for years to make sure everyone has a shot at success.”
Voter surveys suggest thousands plan to split their ballots. Obama led Romney in the former governor’s home state, 59 percent to 34 percent among likely voters in a May 23 Suffolk University poll that showed Warren at 47 percent, trailing Brown’s 48 percent.
Massachusetts has a history of ticket-splitting, from backing Democrat John F. Kennedy for the White House in 1960 while re-electing Republican Leverett Saltonstall to the Senate. In 1972, the Bay State stood alone in supporting Democrat George McGovern for president over Richard Nixon, while sending Republican Ed Brooke back to the Senate for a second term. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican presidential candidate to win there in 1984, when John Kerry captured a Senate seat.
Democrats lost their majority status in 1990, while the proportion of “unenrolled,” or independent, voters has risen from 45 percent two decades ago in Massachusetts.
“The Democratic party should be worried about the growing contingent of independents,” said Worcester City Councilor Konstantina Lukes, a Democrat. A former mayor of the state’s second-largest city, she’s backing Brown in November.
“Voting has become a matter of blind party loyalty and that is a drastic mistake,” Lukes said. “There are no checks and balances.”
The Suffolk University Political Research Center’s May poll of likely voters showed 56 percent agreed that having a senator from each party in Washington provides a benefit. Asked to evaluate Brown and Warren, 47 percent told the Boston-based polling unit that the Republican would be an independent senator to 42 percent who said that of the Democrat.
“Scott Brown has a proven record of independent leadership,” Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman, said by e-mail. He is “a bridge builder, not a rock thrower,” she said.
While just 6 percent of likely voters were undecided in the Western New England University poll last week, 17 percent of those who supported one of the candidates said they might change their minds. The telephone survey of 444 likely voters Sept. 6-13 by the Springfield-based school had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.
Undecided voters are generally independents who want bipartisanship, said Dan Payne, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Kerry and retiring U.S. Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Newton. Bay State Republicans have run partly on the theme that they would keep the other side honest, he said.
That rationale resonates with some voters, since almost every political scandal in Massachusetts involves a Democrat, said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College in Easton, south of Boston. Last year, for example, Salvatore DiMasi of Boston became the third consecutive speaker of the House of Representatives to be convicted of a federal crime based on conduct while holding the office.
“Warren needs to convince voters that Brown’s not who you think he is -- that he is more conservative, more willing to play ball with Wall Street and big-money interests,” Payne said. She needs to show that “while he may be a good guy, he’s not a good senator for Massachusetts,” he said.
Brown has battled electoral odds for more than a decade, having served as a state lawmaker since 1999. He spent six years in the senate, where his party holds just four of the 40 members are Republicans.
“It’s not good for a state of our kind to have everyone be from the same party,” said Peter Blute, the deputy chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party and a former U.S. representative from the Worcester area. “Scott Brown is making a strong case that it’s very, very good for Massachusetts to have some diversity.”
That pitch sold Cathy Curtis of suburban Wellesley, a 52-year-old chief sustainability officer at a software company. A self-described fiscal conservative, she helped send Brown to the state legislature.
“I voted for him twice, and part of the reason was because I believe we need to have a balanced government and in Massachusetts it’s not always that way,” Curtis said.
More recently, she has become a registered Democrat, switching from unenrolled. Curtis said she supports Warren for Senate, since she believes the law professor is better equipped intellectually for the complexities of a senator’s job.