When Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren debate for the first time today, both candidates vying to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate will hold advantages capable of tipping the race.
Brown’s upset victory in 2010 for the post held by the late Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years was fueled by his debate performances against Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was considered a shoo-in before Brown stole the spotlight with his one-liners and what the Boston Globe called “pointed attacks.”
Warren’s rise from academic scholar to Democratic star grew from her fight to create a federal consumer protection agency and her success at translating complex political ideology into succinct campaign themes.
The debate at WBZ-TV in Boston, which begins at 7 p.m. local time, is the first of four scheduled before Nov. 6, when voters will determine the outcome of the one of the most closely watched and expensive races for the Senate, where Democrats are fighting to hold a majority. A poll released yesterday was the fourth in as many days to show Warren with an advantage after months that had the two candidates trading leads.
“When you are the incumbent, you have one job, and that is to explain to people why you deserve re-election,” said Michael Goldman, who has consulted on campaigns for Democrats since the 1960s. “When you’re the insurgent, you have two jobs: You have to explain why you’d be good and, more importantly, better than the person that’s in there.”
Seeking to persuade voters to elect him to a first full, six-year term, Brown, 53, will continue to highlight his bipartisan record while painting his opponent as a provocateur who will exacerbate political polarization in Washington.
Warren’s “ideas are out of the mainstream,” said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman for Brown.
For Warren, 63, the forum provides an opportunity to examine the parts of Brown’s record he doesn’t tout, such as his support for legislation that would have permitted employers to strip their health plans of birth control on religious or moral grounds and his vote in favor of subsidies for oil companies.
She has sought to tie him to the national Republican Party, which is unpopular in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts even as former Governor Mitt Romney tops the ticket. Brown is the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation.
“Scott Brown doesn’t always vote the wrong way, but on really important issues, he’s stood with the millionaires and billionaires against the interests of working families here in Massachusetts,” said Alethea Harney, a spokeswoman for Warren, who received a boost today when Boston newspapers reported that Mayor Thomas M. Menino would endorse her.
The race is the first for Warren, who has lectured for decades as a professor and specialist in consumer bankruptcy, most recently at Harvard Law School. Brown served in the state senate before his current post and has faced off in at least a dozen debates since entering public service in the early 1990s.
Warren needs to break down Brown’s image as a friendly, regular guy while connecting with voters to boost her likability, which has trailed Brown’s in voter surveys since the campaign began, said Goldman.
Warren is no stranger to debates. She was 16 and living in Oklahoma, where she was born and raised, when she graduated from high school and attended George Washington University on a full debate scholarship that paid for her room, board, tuition, books and some spending money.
“College debates are about the steady accumulation of arguments and facts,” said Goldman. “Political debates are about taking advantage of moments.”
Brown is remembered for one of those moments in his final debate against Coakley two years ago, after the moderator referred to the post they were seeking as “Kennedy’s seat.”
“It’s the people’s seat,” Brown shot back.
“That perfectly the captured the mood of the electorate at that time, and so he’ll have to do something similar,” said Peter Blute, the deputy chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party and a former U.S. representative from the Worcester area.
“This is not about ideological gamesmanship; this is about Massachusetts interests,” he said. “He’s got to do what he did against Martha Coakley -- establish that he’s on top of the issues and will fight the right battles on Capitol Hill instead of the ideological battles that cause partisan gridlock.”