Almost a year to the day since Elizabeth Warren declared her candidacy for the U.S. Senate outside a South Boston MBTA station, Democratic political consultants and professors said that the Harvard Law School professor still faces the same uphill battle that has beguiled her campaign since its earliest days.
Trailing incumbent U.S. Senator Scott Brown by a slight margin with only 54 days remaining before the Nov. 6 election, those experts said Warren will have to overcome the tide of public opinion and prove to Massachusetts voters that she, not her opponent, is best suited to fight on their behalf. The delivery of that message—one that politicos say Warren has mishandled thus far—could be the race’s deciding factor.
From its outset, the race was expected to be one of the most expensive and hard-fought in the country, pitting a popular incumbent Republican against the Democratic party’s progressive darling in a high-stakes face-off for Massachusetts’s junior U.S. Senate seat. When Warren entered the fray last September, experts said Brown’s popularity and political savvy paired with Warren’s political inexperience would make the race—even in a traditionally blue state like Massachusetts—difficult for Democrats to win.
Now, with a year of campaigning behind her, Warren is anything but inexperienced, but political consultants and political science professors said she has failed to grasp the heart of the problems facing her campaign. Specifically, those familiar with the race said that Warren’s messaging, in advertising and campaign speeches, has failed to persuade voters.
“My critique of it is simple: it’s not about Massachusetts,” said Democratic political consultant Dan Payne. “It’s as though she’s running a national campaign. Brown, on the other hand, his advertising is very attached to the state.”
While Brown has found success and popularity in retail politics, easily relating to voters—a recent poll showed his approval rating at 53 percent—Warren has stuck to the issues, struggling to appeal to voters on a personal level.
“I don’t think the issues are anywhere near relevant in this race. The question is: Is she senatorial and is Brown credible as an independent thinker?” said Harvard Kennedy School lecturer M. Marty Linsky. “I think it is very hard for a person who has been in her head apparently successfully so long to start competing between the neck and the navel.”
Democratic consultants observing the campaign said this type of campaigning will mean forcing the seasoned-campaigner Brown into unscripted situations and exposing his Republican loyalties, as well as recasting the Warren narrative around connections with voters instead political platitudes.
“Brown has been around for a long time and more people know him than Elizabeth Warren. As a result, because they know him and like him, it is easier for him to define who Elizabeth Warren is,” Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh said. “I think the Warren campaign has been hitting back, but they also could hit back harder.”
Payne put it more directly: “Brown has been running a seemingly effortless campaign,” he said. Brown’s easy-going relatability on the campaign trail paired with his perceived moderate Republican stances have allowed him to control the tenor of the race on issues small and large, Payne added.
Whether Warren can change that dynamic will largely be determined by debates, consultants said, which should provide a key, high-profile opportunity for the candidates to engage directly. Such an opportunity could be enough for Warren to hit the restart button on her campaign, Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman said.
Massachusetts politicos credit the 2010 debates between Brown and Democratic challenger Martha M. Coakley with determining the outcome of that race. Coakley, who was the frontrunner heading into the the special election debates, came off stiff and out of touch, opening the door for a once-unlikely Brown victory, they said.
Warren, who like Coakley has faced accusations of stiffness and being out of touch, will have to leave the issues behind and appeal to voters on a personal level.
“I think it’s much more a question of will than skill,” Linksy said. “Her willingness to be uncomfortable, to do the things she is uncomfortable with, and present herself in a way she’s uncomfortable with.
”Warren’s campaign declined to comment for this story, but the Boston Globe reported Wednesday that it was considering a change in message in light of mounting pressure from Democratic leaders. The camp released the first in a series of new advertisements Wednesday afternoon themed “Your Fight is Elizabeth’s Fight.”
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.