Rick Holmes: Brown and Warren debate personality vs. issues
The White House isn’t the only thing at stake on Nov. 6. The U.S. Senate is very much on the line, too.
Six months ago, it looked like the Republicans would take over, as several Democratic incumbents retired in the face of the GOP/tea party’s next wave. It appeared likely that Republicans would pick up the three seats they’d need to control the Senate, or four if the Democrats hold on to the presidency.
But the Democrats recruited some candidates that have proved surprisingly strong. Some GOP Senate candidates, most prominently Todd “legitimate rape” Akin of Missouri, have stumbled on their extremism. And Democrats seem to have discovered their enthusiasm at the convention in Charlotte.
It will be close though, and every contest counts. Which brings us to Sen. Scott Brown and Professor Elizabeth Warren.
Brown has tipped the Senate before. When Massachusetts voters elected him in January 2010 to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Brown became the 41st Republican vote, the point on the spear of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s filibuster, a one-man roadblock to the Obama agenda.
His surprise win made Brown a national figure and a tea party darling, but he has carefully tacked to the center, casting votes with the Democrats strategically, if rarely, to nurture an image of bipartisan moderation. He darted in and out of the Republican convention without being seen.
Now Brown is describing himself as pro-choice at every opportunity. One of his ads features Barack Obama, but he’s keeping his distance from Mitt Romney – which tells you something about how popular Romney is in the state he governed just six years ago.
To take back Ted Kennedy’s seat, Democrats coalesced smoothly around Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor and expert in family bankruptcy who was the mother of Obama’s new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
A first-time candidate, Warren has shaken a lot of hands, but it’s hard to tell if she has connected with ordinary voters. She was thrown terribly off-stride at the start of the campaign by a kerfuffle over whether she lied about having Native American heritage in an entry in a legal directory. Talk radio conservatives have made a huge deal out of it. But the story is murky, there’s no evidence she profited from it, and why should it matter if she’s 1/32 Indian?
For those who expected a campaign about big ideas, the campaign has been a huge disappointment. In a battle of commercials, the candidates have mostly talked past each other. The polls have been all over the map.
Which brings us to Thursday’s first debate between the contenders.
Brown came out swinging. Given the opportunity by WBZ’s Jon Keller to declare whether the race was about issues or character, he went right to the Indian heritage issue. Later he beat up on Warren over the high salaries she and her husband make teaching at Harvard.
For someone banking on his image as a nice guy, going personal may have been a mistake. Like a lot of Republicans, Brown comes across as someone who listens to too much talk radio. But lines that bring guffaws from the talk radio audience can sound strained to voters tuned to a different frequency.
Warren was composed and stuck to issues. As with her prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention, she didn’t come across as the next Bill Clinton. But she didn’t sound shrill and she didn’t make mistakes. And she reminded voters that a vote for Scott Brown is a vote to give control of the Senate to Mitch McConnell and a bunch of right-wingers who are pretty unpopular in Massachusetts.
So there we are, with two strong candidates and no clear winner. Brown wears his image as the buff, regular-guy independent like an old $675 barn jacket. He’s charming one-on-one and enjoys pressing the flesh. He looks good in commercials and avoids direct questions from the press.
Warren loses the image battle, and her campaign has been less interesting than her resume. She was talking about the stress on the middle class decades before it became a national issue, but her campaign seems based on slogans left over from the Mondale campaign. She’s fighting for working families at every turn, but undecided voters think there’s too much fighting going on in Washington these days, and too little getting accomplished.
Massachusetts voters seem to like Brown’s personality and agree with Warren’s stance on the issues. Come Nov. 6, much will ride on whether they vote with their hearts or their heads.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.