Massachusetts Republicans Grow Pessimistic About Brown

Jim O'Sullivan
National Journal

When Sen. Scott Brown won a special election to replace the late Edward Kennedy in January 2010, some Republicans called it a miracle. Now, some of those same Republicans are starting to acknowledge that Brown may need another episode of divine intervention to keep his seat.

Brown got a jolt of positive news on Monday morning, when a Boston Globe poll showed him tied with Democrat Elizabeth Warren at 47 percent when "lean voters" were included. Most recent polling shows Brown trailing Warren, even though he attracts support from a significant number of Democrats. A poll conducted for WBUR by MassInc last week showed Warren leading 50 percent to 44 percent.

Surveys consistently show Brown earning support from as much as 16 percent of voters who call themselves Democrats -- but that's not enough. His campaign has long maintained that he needs at least 20 percent to win.

With the final debate, originally scheduled for Tuesday, cancelled, Brown’s opportunities to pick up ground on Warren are dwindling. The WBUR/MassInc poll showed President Obama leading Mitt Romney by 56 percent to 36 percent in the state, and Warren and her allies have escalated efforts to shackle the moderate Brown to more conservative national Republicans.

"She is trying to nationalize the race," Brown told National Journal in a phone interview on Friday. "This is the race she doesn’t want. She wants to run against everybody but me."

Republican strategists say Warren's strategy is paying off, to their chagrin. After polling virtually even with Warren for months, Brown's numbers started to head south in September. They have not fully recovered.

Democrats who watch polls closely say that's because the undecided voters who remained were overwhelmingly Obama voters; now, those voters have started to back Obama's fellow Democrat.

Brown has never lost a race in his political career. And he's staying optimistic in the homestretch. "I'm very content where we’re at. I’ve always been the underdog, and I’m going to be the underdog again, and that’s what makes it all the more sweet," he said.

The Warren campaign declined to make her available for this article.

Brown advisers have long acknowledged the infrastructure disadvantages he faces in a state that reliably chooses Democratic presidential candidates, noting that the Nov. 6 electorate will be vastly different from the one that elected Brown in the special election two years ago.

A recent local political dimension adds another hurdle for Brown. Since the 2006 gubernatorial primary, advisers to Deval Patrick, then the Democratic nominee and since 2007 the state’s governor, have controlled the party machinery. The advisers, chiefly current state party chairman John Walsh and senior Warren adviser Doug Rubin, have frequently prompted covert eye-rolls among their fellow operatives for their devotion to grassroots politics as a practice rather than a rhetorical device.

But in November, Walsh and Rubin will have run the operation there almost exclusively since Patrick’s first race in 2006, through Obama’s campaign there in 2008, and the current election. Only Attorney General Martha Coakley’s inner circle during her unsuccessful 2010 race against Brown included neither Walsh nor Rubin; in fact, Rubin worked for a Coakley opponent in the primary.

The muscle memory developed during the Democratic regime could prove powerful for Warren, particularly among home-state Democrats who bear Brown’s 2010 victory as a humiliating career failure.

After months of denying it would do so, Warren’s campaign has in the closing weeks made a conscientious effort to tie Brown to his party label and the potential for GOP control of the Senate. Warren's campaign has tried to connect the first-term senator to Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s "legitimate rape" comment, even though Brown was one of the first Republicans to disavow Akin's comment. Warren also benefits from Romney’s dismal standing in the state he once governed.

At the same time, some Bay State Republicans harbor a belief in a "reverse Bradley effect," an inversion of the polling phenomenon named for the former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and his over-performance in public opinion polls before the 1982 California gubernatorial election, purportedly due to voters’ reluctance to indicate to pollsters that they were wouldn't vote for an African-American candidate. The same aversion, the theory holds, could apply to likely Republican voters in Massachusetts.

Brown is accustomed to overcoming political hurdles. A former state senator, he won that seat in a 2004 special election held the same day as the presidential primary featuring home-state Sen. John Kerry. Brown held the seat in the subsequent general election.

Last week, The Globe, a member of the consortium who were supposed to host the final debate, slotted on its front page an exploration of Brown’s years as a model, much of it plumbed from his 2011 memoir.

During Warren's debate preparation, veteran Boston attorney and Democratic operative Jack Corrigan has played Brown, while Brown spars with his research director, Ed Murphy, who is playing Warren.

Brown was asked on Friday whether, if he loses next week, he would consider running for Kerry’s seat should the senior senator be tabbed as Obama’s second-term secretary of State. That “what-if” has been churning in Massachusetts for months.

“I never, ever, ever think about losing, number one, and I don’t think about tomorrow because I live for today,” Brown replied. “Because I could be gone tomorrow ... physically dead tomorrow.”