When the vote total from a small precinct showed a smaller margin of victory than anticipated, the fictitious mayor in Edwin O’Connor’s classic, The Last Hurrah, begins to sense what was once beyond belief: defeat. I was thinking of O’Connor, again, as I looked over the landscape of the Brown-Warren race.
My colleague, Professor Duquette, makes a strong and reasoned case for projecting Elizabeth Warren as the likely winner in this fall’s Senate race. Political Science is not a mystery: data, history, evidence are valued over great storylines and plots.
And yet part of the difficulty with being a student of politics is that our subject matters are complex, voters don’t always play the parts we ascribe to them, and political change can be undetectable at the outset. When confronted with what well may be an anomaly but could also be a large cause for concern, O’Connor’s Mayor Skeffington wondered, “had disaster whispered here?”
So I cede the excellent analysis to Professor Duquette and agree that a win in November is going to be extraordinarily difficult for Senator Brown. But I hedge a bit more on this race and wonder if something else is being whispered.
The recent back and forth of public opinion polls continued with the latest PPP Poll showing Warren leading Brown 46%-41%. Those results also showed that Brown has the support of “a fair share of Democratic voters, taking 17% of them to Warren’s 72%, and he also wins independent voters by 12 points, 48-36.” The problem for Brown is that he needs to win independent voters by an even greater percentage to overcome Warren’s superiority with Democrats. ‘And independent voters lean Democratic. But that 17% of Democratic support for the Republican Brown is a start.
When Skeffington pressed his chief aide for why the election results were off, the aide replied, “I dunno. Something’s up, and it ain’t good. I don’t figure it yet, but I tell you this: I think we got trouble.”
Have the Democrats got trouble? Two small clues emerged last week. Perhaps nothing to worry about in the spring before a fall election but I don’t think they can be easily dismissed.
1. The Mayor Speaks. Brown won’t win Boston or its liberal suburbs. But can he appeal to enough urban Democrats in our cities to keep the margin closer than it might otherwise be. Will Brown’s relationship with Boston Mayor Tom Menino pay that kind of dividend on election day? When asked if he’d vote for Elizabeth Warren, Tom Menino recently answered, “When you vote it’s a secret ballot.” Interesting and hardly a ringing endorsement for the juggernaut that is the pre-primary Warren campaign.
Menino the urban pol can help tip a close statewide race by keeping his powder dry. In 1998, Menino was famously tepid in his support of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Scott Harshbarger, who went on to lose to Paul Cellucci by only 3% of the vote. What message is Menino trying to send to his supporters and those who look to him, described nicely by O’Connor as those who gathered around Skeffington: “the minor politicians, the workers, the officeseekers . . .” At the moment the message is hardly muddled. He’s clearly keeping himself at a distance from Warren. Why? It’s unclear though the Mayor has been positive in his assessment of Brown since before Warren declared her candidacy.
2. Us versus Them. Brown is at ease among the St. Patrick’s Day crowd and that crowd has reciprocated. Joan Vennochi in the Globe, put it boldly: “the Old School Democrats behind Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast always send a message to insiders. This year, it was all about Senator Scott Brown. He’s their guy.”
He’s their guy. He’s one of us. Brown’s campaign commercial with former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn at the Irish Heritage Festival projects the same message and it’s one that anyone who descended from a family living in Irish Boston can easily pick up on: he’s one of us. It’s Ronald Reagan having lunch at the Eire Pub in 1983, before and after winning Massachusetts. Again, the 1998 election looms large. When Tom Finneran accused Scott Harshbarger of being a member of the Looney Left, the signal was sent loud and clear: he’s not one of us.
Can Scott Brown convince enough independents and Democrats that he’s one of them and gain their vote after they cast a ballot for Barack Obama? Obama’s likely landslide here and Warren’s biography is not going to make this easy and she will have the financial resources to make her bio widely known. And, as my colleague has taken pains to point out, a presidential election year all but guarantees that the issues will be nationalized. Thus must Brown convince a great number of independents and conservative Democrats that he’s one of them in a year when the national GOP brand won’t sell here. I’ll be watching for any ferment among a real “Democrats for Brown” group–similar in kind to the Old School Dems who backed Cellucci in 1998. It might be the first sign of a real fissure that can further Brown’s fortunes among Democrats and independents.