By jumping into the national controversy over coverage for contraception, US Senator Scott Brown is playing a political hand that has a long history in modern Massachusetts politics - attempting to drive a wedge between socially conservative voters and liberal Democratic candidates.
The contraception battle, which is drawing national attention, underscores the class and religious lines that often emerge in Massachusetts as Roman Catholic traditions and the liberal political leanings collide.
Seasoned political observers say they see Brown’s embrace of the moral exemption issue as a political move to gain him support in a very critical bloc of voters: the socially conservative so-called Ronald Reagan Democrats and GOP-leaning independents that he will need to beat back a challenge from likely Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren.
Brown has signed onto a Senate Republican proposal that would allow any employer, not just religious institutions, to deny its workers benefits if they have moral objections to any health service. He then touted that support in a radio blitz launched this week, along with an opinion piece in yesterday’s Globe.
“It doesn’t look like a shrewd move, when you play it out against the liberal stereotype of Massachusetts,’’ said Jack Beatty, a former senior editor at Atlantic Monthly magazine who wrote a much-acclaimed book on Boston’s legendary mayor, James Michael Curley, a master in political class conflict.
“But that is not where he is looking for his votes,’’ said Beatty, who is also an analyst on WBUR-FM radio’s “On Point’’ program. “He is looking to Reagan voters. So what looks like a blunder could very well be a shrewd move.’’
Reagan Democrats are typically defined as culturally and socially conservative working-class voters who often feel alienated by the Democratic liberal establishment.
Indeed, Brown’s endorsement of the proposal also highlights what appears to be an increasingly shifting image - he moves so quickly across the political spectrum that he is keeping voters, analysts, and even the Warren campaign guessing where he will land next. But Brown’s aides say the senator is merely displaying a degree of independence that they hope will play well in a heavily Democratic state.
Within days after backing the latest GOP plan on health coverage limits, he urged the Pentagon to allow women to serve in combat, breaking with some of his GOP colleagues in an effort to appeal to female voters. That move came on the heels of his backing the repeal of the military’s “’don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy.
More recently he also proposed a work visa program for Irish citizens, shifting away from the GOP’s hard line on immigration issues.
But in his latest move, he has swung back to the right, this time potentially alienating one key voting bloc - women - as he tries to make inroads into a critical part of the Democratic base.
Brown aides said yesterday that the Republican senator had signed onto the bill known as the Blunt Amendment out of conviction that it helps address a critical issue of religious freedom, but also one that they say is embedded in federal law. Colin Reed, the Brown campaign’s communications director, said Warren’s attack on Brown’s support of the Blunt bill is a “desperate rush to scare women and politicize this issue.’’
“The exemption for ‘moral conviction’ already appears in at least 10 federal laws - including some health care laws - currently on the books, and a US Supreme Court case found that the government must not draw a distinction between religious beliefs and moral beliefs,’’ Reed said in a prepared statement.
Brown’s backing of the bill has launched the first major confrontation between the senator and Warren. Each is struggling to shape the debate on the issue - whether it is one of religious freedom as Brown declares, or the right of women to get full health benefits, as Warren asserts.
Warren too has launched a radio campaign and yesterday she wrote a competing Globe opinion piece criticizing Brown.
The Obama administration’s decision earlier this month to issue regulations requiring religious institution to cover contraception costs as part of their workers’ health plans sparked a backlash from the Catholic church and socially conservative Republicans. The president backed down, putting in place a compromise that requires health insurers, not religious institutions, to pay for the contraception costs.
“There’s no question he is hunting Reagan Democrats,’’ said Lou DiNatale, a veteran political operative and pollster who said that approach can succeed in picking up working-class votes, if done right. “Even for a moderate Republican in Massachusetts, you need those Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan and Ed King. Those are the cultural war targets that Brown is aiming at. He needs to block [Warren] out of that demographic.’’
DiNatale’s reference to King, the former Democratic governor, harks back over 30 years when King, pounding away at cultural issues, upset first-term governor Michael Dukakis in the 1978 Democratic primary. That election set the political and cultural fault lines that still run through Massachusetts politics.
Todd Domke, a veteran Massachusetts Republican media consultant, noted that the political dynamic shifted in the 1990s when William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci, Republican governors, embraced moderate and liberal social positions while staking strongly conservative fiscal ground. They set themselves off from the likes of their rival, John Silber, the former Boston University president and 1990 Democratic nominee for governor, and the conservative wing of the GOP.
Domke said Brown seems to be more of an ideological composite - conservative on some social issues, liberal on others. “It’s harder to explain, but that’s often the case for moderates,’’ he said.
US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat who is considered one of the most socially conservative of the state’s 10-member congressional delegation, said Brown is off the mark if he is trying to divide Warren from the centrist Democrats. Lynch said President Obama’s decision to compromise has defused the issue and that most Massachusetts voters are more concerned with their financial problems.
“What is happening now is, Blunt and others are trying to hang onto this issue, but it is just not there anymore,’’ Lynch said. “The anger that centrist Democrats may have had is gone. I don’t see any success for them in reviving and keeping it going.’’Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.