Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law school professor and consumer advocate, officially entered the Massachusetts Senate race this week. She’d been testing the waters for weeks and now faces the ultimate test: Can she connect with Massachusetts voters and withstand a long primary to take the Senate seat of Republican Scott Brown?
In her announcement video Warren tried to appeal to voters by talking about her humble roots and pledging to stand up for the middle class.
“Middle-class families have been chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered for a generation now, and I don’t think Washington gets it,” Warren said. “I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle-class and I know it’s hard out there.”
Warren said she had ”fought” her whole life for “working families” and she has “stood up to some pretty powerful interests.”
That message, Democrats said, would be the key to success, but as a first time candidate, who angered both Republicans and Democrats as a government watchdog while in Washington, she will undoubtedly have a tough fight against her Democratic rivals and Brown.
Longtime Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said Warren had a strong message, but as a brand-new, first-time candidate she is still getting her “sea legs.” Marsh, who is not affiliated with the Warren campaign, outlined the message that she believes should be the Warren campaign’s pitch to Massachusetts independent voters.
“In a year when everyone is mad at Washington and Wall Street, Scott Brown joined the club and Elizabeth Warren has been throwing bombs at it,” Marsh said. “It’s easier to get out there and fight for someone else, fight for a cause, but when you have to go out there and make the case for yourself, it’s a challenge, but that’s always the case.”
Marsh added that despite a crowded primary field, Warren should try to dominate her Democratic rivals early and raise funds to run a campaign directly against Brown before the brief six week general election gets under way next September.
“She needs to consolidate the Democrats, which would let her take the fight to Scott Brown earlier rather than later,” Marsh said.
Warren hit the campaign trail Wednesday, greeting commuters at a T stop in Boston, and then traveled around the state. At one stop she aimed to distance herself from President Obama and his low poll numbers.
When asked whether her past work in the Obama administration could hurt her campaign, Warren said, ”I’m my own person, and I’ve been talking about my set of issues for a very long time. I’ve stood toe-to-toe with a lot of different folks for the past few years, and I will continue to do that.”
She was, however, evasive on whether she would support Obama’s American Jobs Act.
“We’ve got to have a jobs bill and we’ve got to have a jobs bill now, but it’s not enough to do short-term and temporary fixes,” Warren said, according to the Boston Herald. ”We have to make changes about our long-term investments.
“What I’m doing right now is trying to talk about the bigger conversation we need to have,” she said. “We need to get ourselves pulled out of this recession, but there’s a real values question about where we are heading.”
Doug Rubin, a Warren campaign adviser, said he’s seen “genuine excitement” on their two days on the trail, and said the key to a “successful campaign” is building the grassroots support.
“We need to earn this one day at a time in the primary, and that’s where the focus is,” Rubin said. “We need to win the primary, and then we’ll have the opportunity to take on Sen. Brown.”
Rubin said the campaign would stay “focused on the issues that Elizabeth Warren has been focused on: fighting for middle-class families and making sure they have an advocate in the United States senator from Massachusetts.”
Before taking on Brown, Warren needs to beat City Year co-founder Alan Khazei; Newton Mayor Setti Warren; State Rep. Thomas Conroy; Bob Massie, who is a former candidate for lieutenant governor; immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco; and engineer Herb Robinson from Newton.
On Labor Day, she headlined the Greater Boston Labor Council’s annual Labor Day breakfast while her would-be opponents were relegated to the sidelines. The group’s Executive Secretary and Treasurer Richard Rogers said they got some heat from the other campaigns for having Warren headline, but they weren’t endorsing her. But there was a lot of interest in hearing about her work setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he said.
The Greater Boston Labor Council is part of the state AFL-CIO, and Rogers said the council wouldn’t be choosing a candidate to back anytime soon, although he said Warren had a strong message that would be well-received by the different labor organizations.
“We love her message. If she sticks to that message, she’ll get a fair hearing and quite a bit of support from the labor movement,” Rogers said.
Even though there won’t be an official union endorsement soon, Warren is now viewed as the establishment candidate, something her rivals will have to contend with.
“The field has been wanting,” Marsh said. “People were lukewarm at best with the choices they had, and she has clearly done a terrific job coming out of the box and introducing herself. I know a lot of people who attended the house parties. … I never heard a reaction to anybody like the one I heard about her, from both new and old time Democratic activists. They definitely seemed enthusiastic about her.”
Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett believes the long primary season puts the Brown campaign at an advantage.
“She’s just the latest entrant in what’s going to be a long and expensive and divisive primary, and a year from now, once the Democrats decide on who the nominee is, we will be prepared to take on whomever that is. Until then, Scott will be focused on finding bipartisan solutions to improve our economy, get workers back on the job, reduce the debt and keep taxes low,” Barnett said.
And the long primary has already begun. Khazei — who’s the main fundraiser among the contenders — asked Warren, in a statement to the Boston Globe to reject “contributions from every single political action committee and corporate lobbyist. For too long now, the political system in Washington has been failing average families because it is corrupted with powerful, monied PACs and special interests who are gaming the system.”
The Khazei campaign did not return calls from ABCNews.com seeking comment, but Rubin said in a statement, “Anyone who’s going to contribute to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign knows she has been fighting for middle-class families her whole life, and that’s who she’ll fight for in the Senate. Nothing’s going to change that.”
Warren has already received encouragement and money from outside groups, making it impossible for her to accept Khazei’s challenge. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, for example, not only helped Warren organize the house parties before she officially got in the race but announced Wednesday it had already raised $200,000 for her.
Even if Warren does sail through the primary and bests her opponents, she still has to face Brown, who is very popular in the state. Republicans will likely push the message that she is an Ivory tower Harvard law professor and Oklahoma native who’s too liberal and can’t connect with voters or know the worries of average voters.
Brown surprised the country by defeating State Attorney General Martha Coakley in bright blue Massachusetts last year, and he’s sure to return to themes from that campaign in which he drove around the state in his pickup truck telling his story of overcoming a hardscrabble, difficult childhood, and pledging to work across the aisle.
The Warren camp isn’t worried about how the Republicans will define her. Rubin said, “Once voters get to meet her and see her that won’t be an issue for us.
“It’s not who she is and I think voters will quickly realize that. That’s why we are working hard to get around the state so voters can meet her, ask her questions and get to know who she is and what she cares about,” Rubin said.
Besides Massachusetts being a blue state, Warren has another advantage over the Republican senator: Brown won in a special election, but the Brown-Warren brawl will be held in a presidential year, where voter turnout will be higher than for a special election. Bay State Republican strategist Rob Gray admitted this was a hurdle for Brown’s campaign, but the fact that Warren has not run before is “a crapshoot in terms of how [she] connect with voters and connects on TV.
“I don’t think you can just put on a plaid shirt and a barn jacket and drive a pick up truck and be somebody you’re not. It worked for Scott Brown because that’s who he is,” Gray said. “Running in a presidential election year in Massachusetts with increased turnout with casual Democrats and independents voting is a major speed bump for Scott Brown and being re-elected.
“He’s done a good job in the official positions he’s taken, being true to how he ran, being a moderate, which fits with the Massachusetts electorate, but the electoral make up of Massachusetts is very complicated for him in a presidential election year.”
Gray does think the late primary will help Warren because it “tests her as a candidate.”
“And winning in September even against weak opposition does make you look like a winner close to Election Day,” Gray said.
Republicans are already trying to fundraise off the Warren entrance. The state GOP sent out a fundraising e mail entitled, “Push Back Against the D.C. Machine.”
“Today, the same people that Senator Brown has been standing up to in the Senate, the big government believers and the Washington insiders sent Professor Elizabeth Warren to Massachusetts to push their failed agenda here,” the e mail read.
Martha Coakley was seen as unable to connect with Massachusetts Democrats and that’s the ultimate fear for Democrats with the Warren campaign who desperately want to win back the seat Kennedy held for over forty years, but Marsh urges Warren to be herself and make sure she can “throw a punch” and “take a punch.”
“Elizabeth Warren has to be Elizabeth Warren and that’s the most important thing,” Marsh said. “Voters have to get to know you and like you first in that order, then if you are successful and they believe what you are saying the last consideration before going in to the voting booth is, ‘Do I trust this person to keep their word?’”