WASHINGTON — Democrat Elizabeth Warren is off and running in Massachusetts, but it’s unclear whether the political novice has the campaigning skills to credibly challenge Republican Sen. Scott Brown in what promises to be one of 2012’s marquee races.
Warren is largely untested as a candidate, having spent nearly two decades as a Harvard Law professor and consumer advocate.
She’s a liberal darling with the potential to raise loads of cash, but it remains to be seen whether Warren has the political skills to handle a major campaign, particularly the media scrutiny and hardball tactics that are standard fare in big Massachusetts races.
“Most first-time candidates imagine they’re fine with criticism, they can handle it,” said Todd Domke, a veteran Massachusetts GOP consultant. “But you can’t really prepare for how nasty it gets.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., scoffed at suggestions Warren is untested. He cited her recent work on Capitol Hill chairing a panel overseeing the federal bank bailout and setting up a new consumer protection agency for the Obama administration in the face of stiff GOP opposition.
Warren showed her mettle standing up to Republicans during several appearances at congressional hearings and in TV interviews, McGovern said.
“She’s had to deal with Republican senators and congressman who were pretty brutal,” he said. “She gave back as good as they threw at her.”
Brown’s campaign account bulges with nearly $10 million. A recent Boston Globe poll showed Brown as the most popular major politician in the blue state. But the race is important to Democrats hoping to keep control of the narrowly divided Senate in 2012 because they see Brown as one of the few GOP incumbents they can pick off. Democrats desperate for a major challenger courted Warren to join the crowded primary field.
Warren’s skills as a candidate especially matter in Massachusetts, where Democrat Martha Coakley’s fumbling campaign helped Brown win the special election last year for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat. While a confident Coakley coasted in the blue state, Brown outworked her and won over voters as a personable guy who drove a pickup truck.
In a state that’s passionate about the Boston Red Sox, Democrats still cringe at how Coakley famously stumbled by mistakenly referring to former Sox pitching star Curt Schilling as a New York Yankees fan. Coakley also mocked Brown for greeting voters outside Boston’s Fenway Park in wintry weather, a costly gaffe because she was seen as taking voters for granted.
Already, Massachusetts Republicans are eager to create a replay. They fired off a press release blasting Warren for declining to name members of the Red Sox during one of her first campaign stops in July. A TV interviewer asked if she was up to speed on the Red Sox given Coakley’s gaffes, and Warren responded that it was her husband who follows the Sox and all the Boston teams.
Domke said such flaps are really about a candidate’s authenticity.
“In politics, in the age of TV, persona is destiny,” said Domke.
Republicans have accused Warren of being a Harvard elitist out of touch with the concerns of working families.
Warren casts herself as a champion of the middle class, touting her working class roots as the daughter of a janitor who worked as an elementary school teacher.
Rob Gray, a GOP consultant who was a top strategist for former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, said there have been plenty of first-time candidates in Massachusetts who fizzled despite lofty expectations and media buzz.
“You really don’t know until they’ve actually done dozens of campaign events and you’ve seen how they look on the TV news over a period of a couple of months,” Gray said.
He said a prime case was Robert Reich, a former Clinton administration labor secretary who taught at Harvard and who lost the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Reich “just never caught on,” Gray said.
On the other hand, Gray cited first-time candidate Deval Patrick, a Democratic former Justice Department official with a Harvard pedigree. Patrick won the state’s governorship in 2006.
“You just can’t predict it,” said Gray. “Reich and Patrick had similar backgrounds. Patrick had better candidate skills and ran a much better campaign.”
An Oct. 4 debate hosted by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell with her Democratic rivals looms as an early test for Warren.
“The trick will be for her to transfer her skills as a very good teacher speaking in 15 minute increments to speaking in 15 second sound bites for the media,” said Warren Tolman, a former Massachusetts state senator who is a Democratic analyst.
Other Democrats already announced include Setti Warren (no relation to Elizabeth Warren), the first-term mayor of the affluent Boston suburb of Newton and the state’s first popularly elected black mayor; City Year youth program co-founder Alan Khazei; immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco; state Rep. Tom Conroy; and Robert Massie, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1994.