Every time Scott Brown challenged Elizabeth Warren on the issue of her Native American heritage he struck a chord with women.
Unfortunately, it was a sour note. The state’s junior senator was basically arguing that Warren didn’t deserve her success and the only way she got ahead was by claiming to be part Cherokee. By insulting Warren, Brown insulted every woman who had to scratch and fight and claw to prove her worth, and her right to an equal seat at the table with men.
Women definitely helped elect Warren as the first woman to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate. A University of Massachusetts exit poll found that Warren had a 20-point lead among women, while men split fairly evenly between the two candidates.
But Warren didn’t win “just” because she’s a woman. Warren beat Brown because she came across as smarter and more sophisticated. She had a bigger, broader agenda that resonated with more Massachusetts voters who showed up on Election Day.
The Republican incumbent faced a different constituency than the one that sent him to Washington in a special election held after Ted Kennedy’s death. One million more voters turned out in 2012 than in 2010, and most were there to cast a vote for President Obama.
With a huge audience, national and local, watching this race, Brown cast aside conventional wisdom about how to run against a female opponent.
Rule Number One: Avoid a Rick Lazio moment. That’s a reference to the New York congressman who got in Hillary Clinton’s face during their 2000 Senate debate. After Lazio left his podium and stalked over to Clinton with a piece of paper he wanted her to sign, Clinton’s support among female voters solidified.
Brown never physically invaded Warren’s space, but his debate demeanor ranged from condescending to bullying. His effort to paint her as an out-of-touch Cambridge elitist lacked nuance; it became something of a joke to guess how many times he would refer to her as “Professor Warren.” On the basis of e-mails and voicemail messages I received, it’s also fair to conclude that women of a certain age were irked by pro-Brown ads using photos that made Warren look as crone-like as possible.
Warren also seized a moment during their third debate to crystallize their differences on women’s rights issues.
“He has gone to Washington and he has had some good votes,” she said, “but he has had exactly one chance to vote for equal pay for equal work. And he voted no. He had exactly one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control and other preventive services for women. He voted no. And he had exactly one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman, from Massachusetts, to the United States Supreme Court. And he voted no. Those are bad votes for women. The women of Massachusetts need a senator they can count on, not some of the time, but all of the time.”
Poof. Brown’s argument that he is a pro-choice senator with a pro-women agenda went up in Republican red smoke. Ads featuring his wife and daughters could not blunt that telling list of his “no” votes in Washington.
Meanwhile, he continued to pound away at the Cherokee issue. Warren never answered the key question: Why did she list herself as Native American in a professional directory? Instead, she repeated the mantra that her heritage is “family lore,” which it likely is.
But that misses the point Warren is reluctant to acknowledge. Given her modest, Midwest roots and non-Ivy League education, merit alone might not be enough to lead to a professor’s job at Harvard Law School. So, once, at least, she “checked the box.”
Brown tried to turn her heritage into a character issue. But he was also suggesting that Warren was the beneficiary of affirmative action policies that supposedly take jobs away from more qualified white men, in favor of less qualified women and minorities.
His strategy didn’t work, because Warren’s success is so obviously tied to superior smarts and talent. She won because she articulated a vision for what she will do in Washington with clarity and sweep.
She made history. Now she has to fulfill the promise for all Massachusetts citizens.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.