Elizabeth Warren should be wishing Marisa DeFranco well Saturday, hoping she makes it on the Sept. 6 Democratic primary ballot. Politicians don’t normally like challengers — indeed, Warren’s entire campaign has been all about clearing the field — but in this case DeFranco’s upstart campaign may offer something Warren desperately needs: A way to save her campaign.
Getting on a primary ballot requires two things: enough signatures and the party’s consent. DeFranco, an immigration lawyer from the North Shore, has already managed the first. And at the Democratic Party’s annual convention in Springfield today, she’s hoping for the second: approval from 15 percent of the gathered delegates. She may pass that hurdle — or not: Powerful forces in the state are allied against her.
Warren is in deep trouble, a predicament whose genesis begins about a year ago. Scott Brown, the miraculous winner in January 2010 against Attorney General Martha Coakley, was polling as the most popular politician in the state. A large field of Democratic challengers had started to form, one that included state Representative Tom Conroy, Alan Khazei (the founder of City Year), Setti Warren (the mayor of Newton), and at least four others, including DeFranco. Yet, before any of those candidates had even begun seriously to campaign, the conventional wisdom was that none of them had a chance of beating Brown. To national Democrats, who are singularly focused on keeping the Senate in Democratic hands, that was unacceptable.
In retrospect, the conventional wisdom is suspect. Brown had won his race by a narrow margin of just of 109,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast. His sky-high post-victory polls likely didn’t mean that the almost 1.1 million voters who supported Coakley were now GOP converts. More likely, it was simply a reflection of people’s take that — despite differing with him on issues — he was a likeable guy.
But polls change quickly when voters are confronted with a clear choice — candidate A versus candidate B. With the race still in its early infancy, Brown was in effect getting a free ride. That probably wouldn’t have been the case after a year of campaigning had produced a candidate the Democrats could unite behind. (Indeed, the fact that now it is Coakley who is the state’s most popular politician shows just how disconnected election results are from polls.)
Nevertheless, the national party wasn’t taking chances, and so unfolded an almost shameful tale. Warren, a hero to national Democrats (albeit unknown locally and a neophyte politician) was anointed their candidate. Those already in the race had little choice but to exit and dutifully, they did (the exception was DeFranco, apparently not the type to kowtow). In effect, Bay State voters were told that their opinion as to who should be their nominee was unwanted. The mandarins in Washington would choose for them.
That was a mistake. The mistake isn’t that Warren is a bad candidate — she’s actually potentially quite good — but that Democrats lost sight of the fact that primary contests aren’t mere procedural annoyances. They are critical tools for vetting, seasoning and strengthening a candidate. If Warren had been part of a robust primary, competing for voters’ favor against a large field of other credible candidates, she’d have had to learn how to be a candidate — a very different skill set from being an academic — and how to manage the rough and tumble of a dynamic, intense, and exhausting race. She’d have had to figure out how to persuade voters why she — and not her opponents — was best able to take on Brown. And when (what should have been a small) scandal came, as it did with her claims of Indian heritage, she would have been able to deal with it as part of the scrum — under some scrutiny, yes, but not the subject of unrelenting headlines day after day.
Admittedly, DeFranco is not the strongest candidate Warren might have had to face. Still, a genuine primary race would enable Warren to start fresh. Up to now, her candidacy has smacked less of democracy and more of a queen waiting for her coronation. If she is instead forced to earn her nomination, she’ll be the better for it.
Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.