When Elizabeth Warren entered politics in late 2011, Massachusetts no longer felt like political terra firma. Twenty-one months earlier, the state’s brainy, progressive electorate had fallen for a handsome Republican in a barn jacket and pickup truck. Scott Brown’s ascent to the US Senate seat Ted Kennedy had held for 47 years left Massachusetts Democrats with a political hangover much like the one that Democrats nationwide would suffer on Nov. 9, 2016: Did that really just happen?
Blindsided and humiliated, Massachusetts Democrats were intent on reclaiming the seat from Brown. But the candidates lining up to challenge him in this altered political landscape were uninspiring and forgettable. Brown was incandescent in comparison. He was a Republican, yes, but he emphasized his independence, and he radiated down-to-earth normalcy in a time of Tea Party extremism. He was the most popular political figure in the state, and his unlikely win had made him a national figure. His name was being floated in some quarters as a potential presidential contender. Jon Hamm played him on “Saturday Night Live.”
His win in the special election of January 2010 might have seemed crazy, but the notion that he might pull it off a second time, less than two years later, was not crazy at all.
“This was the surge of the Tea Party. And Scott Brown was that white dude in a pickup truck,” said John E. Walsh, then-chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. The year Brown won, 14 Democrats were ousted from the Legislature. “It was a hell of a dangerous time.”
It was the most closely watched, high-stakes Senate race in the nation, and Warren — who raised more money than any other Senate candidate that cycle — now cites her 2012 victory as evidence that she can fight a bruising battle and win. In the most recent televised debate, she pointedly noted she’s the only leading 2020 Democratic candidate for president who has beaten an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years.
Warren entered the race against Brown as a political neophyte but a national figure in her own right. She was a bookish warrior, certainly, coming from Harvard Law School, but behind her was an angry rabble: the “99 percent” of the Occupy Wall Street movement that was spreading across America and the world. She had built her persona as a brilliant but folksy consumer advocate speaking up for the little guy at congressional hearings, demanding answers from bankers who had crashed the nation’s economy. Sanctimonious? Perhaps. But effective.
She won that first race in 2012 by shifting the focus away from likability — who cares who you want to have a beer with? — and onto consequences. Sure, Brown seemed like a nice guy, she allowed, but that nice guy would return Mitch McConnell to control of the Senate. That nice guy voted against confirming a pro-choice woman from his own state to the Supreme Court. That nice guy could cast the deciding vote for a Supreme Court nominee who would reverse Roe v. Wade.
It’s what she hopes to do again this year, in a dramatically different landscape, against an opponent who doesn’t play nice.
If she becomes the Democratic nominee for president, Warren will face President Trump, who has been skewering her mercilessly for years.
And she will not enjoy the unusual political protection she did in 2012, when a “People’s Pledge” that she and Brown signed onto created a third-party advertising cease-fire, preventing political action committees from running nasty ads against her.
The 2012 campaign may have felt brutal; it would be nothing compared to 2020.
“She then had the advantage of being in a very Democratic state, and she didn’t have the kind of concerted media machine that national Republicans” now have, said Todd Domke, who was a Republican analyst in 2012 but who left the party after Trump won. “She didn’t face what any Democratic nominee will be facing this time.”
‘A certain fierceness’
Before Warren entered the 2012 Senate race, a Globe poll found that 60 percent of respondents didn’t know who she was or had no opinion of her. In a hypothetical matchup against Brown, she would lose by 19 points.
But she had outsider appeal and had already established a distinct national brand with a certain audience.
Her research and advocacy on bankruptcy law and the middle class had made her an uncommonly good translator of complicated financial concepts, a dial-a-quote for the media and a regular on the “Dr. Phil” show.
After the 2008 economic crash, she had been tapped to lead a congressional oversight panel for the government bailout of the financial system. She proposed and advocated for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and became a quirky media darling on “The Daily Show,” delivering her down-home explanations through a rapt Jon Stewart.
Before Congress, she had proven to be a relentless interrogator — Timothy Geithner, who would become Treasury secretary, later called them “made-for-YouTube inquisitions” — and she was despised by bankers and Republicans. She seemed so far left that some in D.C. thought she might not pose the greatest threat to Brown, recalled Colin Reed, who was Brown’s campaign spokesman.
“That was a mistake because it didn’t appreciate the nature of the Massachusetts electorate,” Reed said.
Warren had “a certain fierceness,” recalled Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett, that could excite voters who had been dormant in 2010, when Democrat Martha Coakley had presented a tepid counterpoint to the charismatic Brown.
“I could see where that would energize the left,” Barnett said of Warren’s ferocity.
It certainly did. A September 2011 video that went viral revealed Warren as a populist fighter. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody!” she asserted passionately at an Andover house party, gesticulating and igniting the crowd.
That same month, protesters took over a park in the financial district of New York, staging a movement called Occupy Wall Street that would be replicated in cities across America and around the world. The rising anger of the so-called 99 percent — frustrated by the wealth hoarded by the 1 percent of the wealthiest in society — was boiling over.
The Elizabeth Warren of 2012 is easily recognizable in the Warren of 2020. She relied on familiar catch phrases: The middle class was getting hammered, she’d been raised on the “ragged edge of the middle class,” her “daddy” was a janitor. Though her confidence is sturdier and her presentation more polished, her message has been consistent.
Always professorial, she fielded criticism from Democratic party leaders for her early ads, which they griped were preachy and stiff and might have been shot anywhere.
She was a scolding schoolmarm behind a generic desk; Brown was the cool guy in a streetscape that was unmistakably South Boston. Could you run one ad that shows her smiling? her media consultant was asked.
Her campaign responded, launching ads that showed Warren interacting with voters in the real world. But the Hermione Granger of the political world never fundamentally changed, and the knock on her today is the same as it ever was: that her tone is hectoring, smarter-than-thou. She is, one political analyst suggested, more of a know-it-all than ever, with a carefully scripted plan to solve every problem in America.
Some voters never warmed up to her. In 2012, a small but not insignificant number of voters who almost always supported Democrats refused to vote for her, an adviser said. The gaps showed up in gritty, ethnic neighborhoods and among male and working-class Democrats.
“Warren has a sanctimony about her that is a real turnoff for these voters,” Barnett said.
But the Democratic tolerance for policy debates has grown since her first run. After three years of Trump, many Democrats are now starved for substance and relish nerdiness. And after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, the feminist reaction to any gendered criticism is swift and stinging. Smile more? Really?
As in 2012, though, Warren is haunted by the ghost of the unsuccessful woman who ran before her. Back then, Democrats worried about another Coakley debacle — that Warren would be no match for the ever-so-likable Brown. Now Democrats nationwide fret about Warren’s electability, fearing that in a showdown with Trump, she’ll suffer the same humiliating defeat that Clinton did.
Warren went right at that concern in the last debate, noting the proof of her electability in her 2012 win — and highlighting all the losses of the male candidates onstage.
She has also made overt appeals to women, just as she did in her Senate run. Those were the days of Republicans’ rumored “war on women,” and Warren highlighted the real-world impact of Brown’s votes.
“Scott Brown had exactly one chance to vote for equal pay for equal work,” Warren said in the first televised debate against him. “He had one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control. He had one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman to the United States Supreme Court. He voted no, he voted no, he voted no.”
Brown pointedly called her “Professor Warren” in debates and tried to cast Warren as an elitist and a hypocrite. Even as he emphasized his bipartisanship, he seethed at the seeming contradictions between her lucrative work as a lawyer and her public image as a consumer advocate for the little guy. She made over $400,000 at Harvard! She once worked for corporate interests! Brown’s campaign wasn’t able to portray the fiery consumer advocate as a corporate shill, though.
“Brown is trying to cast Warren in two incongruous roles: corporate villain stomping on the little guy and lefty scold who believes in nothing more than Big Government,” Globe business columnist Steven Syre wrote. “How can that be right? Of course, it can’t.”
But Brown’s campaign had settled on that approach — she’s not who she says she is — believing it was better to paint her as a hypocrite than an extremist. (A lefty extremist might actually appeal to her liberal base, they reasoned.)
“Hypocrisy turns off voters of all stripes,” Reed said.
In spring 2012, with the candidates deadlocked in polls, Brown found the issue that would stick, one that Warren still struggles with: Her claims of Native American ancestry.
Help from ‘People’s Pledge’
For days and weeks after the Boston Herald broke the story — that Harvard had touted Warren as a minority faculty member in the 1990s — her explanations sounded awkward, stilted, and unsatisfying.
“Native American is part of my family,” she told the Globe. The woman who had effortlessly translated banking risks to an impatient public could not seem to articulate a response that would quell concerns that she had gamed a liberal system.
To Brown’s campaign, the reason was simple: She was lying. His team packaged the Native American claim with examples of her work with corporations to portray a candidate who was not a consumer ally at all, but a ruthless advocate for only one cause: herself.
Warren’s people claimed to have been caught by surprise by the allegations; they knew she was bungling the message. She became hemmed in and tamped down, skittish with the press she’d once worked so masterfully. But the polls didn’t register a problem. She wasn’t being politically damaged in the way everyone expected.
One Republican strategist theorized the fallout would have been far worse if political action committees were mining the material for attack ads.
“If a group was engaged in the race on the right [or] the center-right, they would have pulverized her, maybe taken her out,” Dave Carney told the Globe at the time.
But Brown had agreed to keep outside groups from mudslinging by engaging Warren in a voluntary “People’s Pledge” — an enforcement system requiring them to pay penalties if they benefited from outside groups’ advertising.
In hindsight, Barnett acknowledged, that might not have been the right move. But he maintains that it protected Brown, too, early on, when fired-up left-leaning groups were seeking electoral revenge.
“Every penny that outside groups could muster would be spent attacking Scott,” he said. “We needed to stanch the bleeding, or the election would have been effectively over in the spring.”
Warren’s people dismiss that as an excuse, believing the pledge was a major miscalculation on Brown’s part. He was a known entity, a popular incumbent, and he was proving to have a Teflon-like coating.
“You couldn’t make people not like him,” said one Warren aide who was involved with the pledge and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The end effect was that Brown, Mr. Nice Guy, would have to do his own dirty work to sully Warren. He had to sign off on the ads that cast doubts on the story of her heritage. (“I’m Scott Brown and I approve this message.”) In a debate, he raised the issue in a way that sounded sneering.
“Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color,” Brown said. “And as you can see, she’s not.”
Then Democrats captured video of Brown’s supporters and campaign aides outside a campaign event, chanting and mocking Warren by doing the Tomahawk chop.
Domke suspects voters recoiled from the association with bigotry when they were forced to decide whose side they were on: The snooty liberals they might not trust? Or a mob of race-baiting bullies?
In Massachusetts, their decision was clear.
Not in Massachusetts anymore
And that is, in the end, the most crucial difference between Warren’s first campaign and the one she’s running this year.
To paraphrase Dorothy, she’s not in Massachusetts anymore.
This time, her audience is broader, less forgiving, less liberal. Her 2012 argument — that a vote for Warren would help avert a Republican wave and a conservative future — can’t be guaranteed this time; she would still face Trump, and many worry she’s not the candidate best positioned to do so. This time around, Barack Obama won’t be on the ticket, helping to draw Democrats to the polls.
When she beat Brown in 2012, Warren won by 7.5 percent. That same day in Massachusetts, President Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney — the state’s former governor — by 23 percent.
That 15-point vote spread gives comfort to Barnett, who argues that Warren didn’t run away with the race at all. Brown just wasn’t going to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Massachusetts Democrats had restored their natural order of things.
“If it had not been a presidential election with Obama at the top of the ballot and a turnout that shifts dramatically in favor of Democrats,” Barnett said, “it would have been, I suspect, a nail-biter.”