Last winter, Senator Scott Brown was still at the crest of a wave. Polls showed he was more popular in Massachusetts than the president. His memoir hit the best-seller list, making him a top draw on national television.
Democrats, meanwhile, sounded dejected, as one candidate after the next bowed out of a potential showdown with Brown, figuring they had too much to lose against the Republican.
But things can change quickly in politics. A year later, the race is now close enough that Brown is casting himself as the underdog.
Today, he officially launches his reelection bid at a rally in Worcester, facing a likely Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, who is running even with him, according to early polls. She could even take the lead as she outpaces his fund-raising.
“If you’re the Brown campaign looking at this, this is a bit of a new world,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute and professor of political science at Stonehill College. “They probably have been caught off guard, as have we all with this juggernaut of the Warren campaign.’’
Brown’s underdog claim is debatable. He is still an incumbent, and handicappers call the race with Warren, the likely Democratic nominee, a tossup.
The race is also expected to be among the most expensive Senate face-offs in the country, and possibly the most compelling.
Not only is control of the US Senate at stake, but both sides also want bragging rights on the seat held by liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy for five decades. Liberals, hit hard by Brown’s surprise victory in the 2010 special election, see Warren as an ideological warrior who can articulate a progressive agenda for the Democratic Party. Republicans see Brown as a national star, from a region of the country that has been nearly impossible to penetrate in recent years.
But for Brown to win, he will need to run a different campaign than he did two years ago. In 2010, he benefited from the cautious campaign run by his opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley. Democrats failed to get voters to the polls; Republicans were energized by anger with President Obama; and independents and conservative Democrats gravitated to Brown’s upbeat personality.
The 2010 special election campaign lasted a matter of weeks, a sprint compared with the current campaign that will allow 10 more months of scrutiny on both sides before ballots are cast in November. The last presidential election drew about 3 million voters, 700,000 more than the special election. That’s considered a significant edge for Democrats, who have an advantage in voter registration and are expected to mobilize for Obama.
“Scott Brown is going to have to get Obama voters. Even if the president loses reelection he’s going to win Massachusetts,’’ Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks races around the country. “The question is how many and how different it will be.’’
Brown said yesterday that he has not been surprised by Warren’s emergence as a Democratic favorite. “I’ve always thought that they would have a candidate,’’ he said. “Professor Warren is a very hard-working, talented, accomplished woman and it’s going to be a battle, and I’ve always known that.’’
He repeated what will be his campaign’s key theme, that he is a bipartisan “problem-solver’’ and that she is “a self-proclaimed rock thrower who wants to leave blood and teeth on the streets instead of compromising.’’
Warren has employed some tough language as she pitches herself as a fighter against powerful lobbyists on behalf of middle-class families, and she has cast Brown as a Wall Street darling.
Gonzales said Brown again needs to make the race about his personality, building on the comfort level many voters feel with him. And he needs to bring in enough blue-collar Democrats, independents, and suburban voters - who elected centrist Republican governors William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci - to overcome Democrats’ advantages.
“He can’t let the race devolve into a simply partisan matchup: Do you like Republicans? Because he’s going to lose’’ if that is the main question, Gonzales said.
But early signs point to Warren winning over voters in the same way Brown has - attracting large crowds to organizational meetings and house parties held around the state months ahead of the election.
Brown is especially conversational with voters, forgoing the self-important tone that many politicians affect when entering a room. At Peabody City Hall yesterday, he greeted about 20 city employees before presenting firefighters across the street with a flag in memory of a fallen colleague.
There were no lengthy speeches or policy discussions, just a lot of banter about people he knew in the city and the Patriots. “Getting ready for the game this weekend?’’ he asked a half-dozen firefighters. He answered the question himself, professing he was “psyched, psyched’’ about the playoff matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
He walked past a few more workers, noting that he has a family member on the police force. “If you see my brother-in-law Rick around, make sure to give him some grief,’’ he said. “He deserves it.’’
Despite his ease in one-on-one situations, Brown has tended to avoid unscripted encounters in less controlled situations, such as town hall meetings or lengthy press interviews. Democrats have criticized him for the lack of town hall gatherings.
“I’ve been to town halls, senior centers, VFWs, all over, businesses, individuals,’’ Brown said yesterday, defending himself. “I’m going to campaign and do my job how I see fit, not how the Democrats want me to do my job. So I’m pretty content where we’re at.’’
And then there are the inevitable differences that will make it hard to replicate that everyman appeal from 2010. Though Brown famously drove a pick-up truck around the state during the special election campaign, he was driven yesterday in a Jeep. Having a driver is a more practical arrangement for a senator who needs to make calls between events, but it is also a reminder that he is no longer the outsider insurgent candidate that he was two years ago.
Brown’s supporters say he is well aware of the excitement around Warren, and motivated by it. “The persona is the same,’’ said State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Republican colleague from Brown’s days at the State House. “I’d say his competitive juices are definitely flowing though.’’Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.