Mass. Senate Race A Battle Over Who's More Populist

Dec 21, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 5:35 pm

Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts made a point of calling Ted Kennedy's old U.S. Senate seat the "people's seat," and he won it in large part by casting himself as the opposite of that glamorous and privileged dynasty.

Brown won in a special election in 2010. Now, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor and Wall Street watchdog, is raising Democrats' hopes they can win the seat back. Just months after announcing her first-ever candidacy, polls show Warren pulling out ahead of Brown.

The race so far is shaping up to be a contest of who is the "real" populist.

Who Had It Worse?

One ad features Brown's green pickup truck and worn-out barn coat. He stresses his hard-knocks upbringing by a single mom on and off welfare. He pretty much had that market cornered in the last election — but not this time.

"I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class, and I know it's hard out there," Warren says in her ad.

Warren entered the race swinging back against Republican suggestions that she's part of the out-of-touch Harvard elite. Brown's camp calls her "Professor Warren" every chance it gets, trying to box her in as an ivory-tower type — someone more likely to share a chardonnay than kick back with a beer.

But Warren is telling a different story, of her Oklahoma childhood. "We lost our car, the medical bills piled up. My mom went to work at Sears answering phones so that we could make the mortgage payments," she says in her ad.

It became a game of one downs-manship.

Her father was a maintenance man. His father abandoned him, and his stepfathers abused him.

She was so hard up, she started waiting tables at 13. He was so desperate for cash, he posed nude for a Cosmo centerfold.

"You know, I didn't go to Harvard," he says, "I went to the school of hard knocks, and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school."

'Regular People'

Republican consultant Todd Domke says the candidates appear to be competing in an American-Idol-style contest for who has the "best sob story." He says the decades-old tales-of-woe may end up doing little for either the now-incumbent U.S. senator or the law professor turned presidential adviser. Both are now pulling in millions of dollars in white-collar donations.

Indeed, the candidates' battle-of-the-bios has already become the stuff of parody.

"What you have now is Scott Brown sort of running as ... the Allman Brothers' rambling man," says Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz, "And then you have Elizabeth Warren sort of the Loretta Lynn coal miner's daughter, and both of them are trying to show that they're regular people."

It's easy to understand the urge to stand with the 99 percent this year, but it's also easy to fall into the overzealous trap. For example, Warren visited the Occupy Boston protesters and claimed to be their intellectual mother. She also tried to prove she was "jus' folks" to a fellow Oklahoman, who was interviewing her.

"I'm going for the hick vote here, I just want you to know that," Warren said. "Maybe we could start wearing stickers that say 'Hicks for Elizabeth.' Could we do that?"

Berkovitz says people can get a little carried away.

"A lot of this is just political kabuki that's so typical everywhere," he says.

Different Enemies

Still, Berkovitz says, it's a little more surprising in Massachusetts, where Harvard connections don't usually count against you, and where Joe the Plumber wouldn't automatically have more street cred than Jane the Professor.

"I think running against Harvard is a great campaign theme for a Republican in Tennessee," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "It's not so great around here, and it hasn't gained any traction."

Academia is the industry here, and pedigree never seemed to hurt Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry or former Govs. William Weld and Mitt Romney.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that even in Massachusetts, where income and education are higher and unemployment lower, candidates are scrambling to prove they are of the people as well as for the people. But what distinguishes Brown and Warren is the target of their wrath.

While Brown is positioning himself as the populist crusading against big government, Warren aims at big business.

"I spent years standing up to Wall Street and the big banks, exposing their tricks and traps, fighting to get a fair shake for people," Warren says.

Consultant Domke says the election might turn on what the average Joe here resents more: regulation and taxes or Wall Street and big banks.

"A recent Gallup poll showed that, by far, more Americans thought that big government was a threat to the future rather than big business, but in Massachusetts, that gap is probably less," he says.

Ultimately, if it is Wall Street — not Washington — that's got Massachusetts voters most riled up, Warren may turn out to have the edge, convincing folks that she's the one fighting for the little guy.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Now, to the race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Just months after announcing her first ever candidacy, polls show Democrat Elizabeth Warren pulling ahead of Republican Scott Brown. Brown won the seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy in a special election in 2021. Now, Warren, a Harvard law professor and Wall Street watchdog, is raising Democrats' hopes that they can win the seat back.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the race is shaping up to be a contest over who is the real populist.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Scott Brown made a point of calling Ted Kennedy's old seat the people's seat and he won it, in large part, by casting himself as the opposite of that glamorous and privileged dynasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

SCOTT BROWN: My name is Scott Brown and I'm running for the United States Senate. This is my truck...

SMITH: In his green pickup truck and worn-out barn coat, Brown stresses his hard-knocks upbringing raised by a single mom on and off welfare. He pretty much had that market cornered in the last election, but not this time.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class, and I know it's hard out there.

SMITH: Elizabeth Warren entered the race swinging against Republican suggestions that she's part of the out-of-touch Harvard elite. Brown's camp calls her Professor Warren every chance they get, trying to box her in as an ivory-tower type more likely to share a chardonnay than kick back with a beer. But Warren is telling a different story, of her Oklahoma childhood.

WARREN: We lost our car, the medical bills piled up. My mom went to work at Sears answering phones so that we could make the mortgage payment.

SMITH: It became a game of one downs-manship. Her father was a maintenance man. His father abandoned him, and his stepfathers abused him. She was so hard up, she started waiting tables at 13. He was so desperate for cash, he posed nude for a "Cosmo" centerfold.

BROWN: You know, I didn't go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks, and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school.

TODD DOMKE: It did seem like this could be sort of an "American Idol" contest, who has the best sob story.

SMITH: Republican consultant Todd Domke says the decades-old tales-of-woe may end up doing little for either the now-incumbent U.S. senator or the law professor turned presidential adviser, both of whom are pulling in millions of dollars in white-collar donations. Indeed, the candidates' battle-of-the-bios has already become the stuff of parody.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE SPEAKER 2: Hell, I joined a gang when I was only 11. I've broken a man's arm just to see what it looked like.

TOBE BERKOVITZ: It isn't that silly yet. We're just warming up.

SMITH: That's Boston University professor, Tobe Berkovitz,

BERKOVITZ: What you have now is Scott Brown sort of running as, you know, the Allman Brothers rambling man, and then you have Elizabeth Warren sort of the Loretta Lynn "Coal Miner's Daughter," and both of them are trying to show that they're regular people.

SMITH: It's easy to understand the urge to stand with the 99 percent this year, but it's also easy to fall into the overzealous trap, like when Warren visited Occupy Boston protesters and claimed to be their intellectual mother or when she tried to prove she was just folks to a fellow Oklahoman who was interviewing her.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: I got a (unintelligible) mother (unintelligible)

WARREN: (overlapping) I'm going for the hick vote here, I just want you to know that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, (unintelligible) one hick (unintelligible)

WARREN: (overlapping) Maybe we could start wearing stickers that say Hicks for Elizabeth. Could we do that?

BERKOVITZ: Sometimes you get a little carried away. A lot of this is just political kabuki that's so typical everywhere.

SMITH: But Berkovitz says it's a little more surprising in Massachusetts, where Harvard connections don't usually count against you, and where Joe the Plumber wouldn't automatically have more street cred than Jane the Professor. Jeffrey Berry is a Tufts professor of political science.

JEFFREY BERRY: I think running against Harvard is a great campaign theme for a Republican in Tennessee. It's not so great around here, and it hasn't gained any traction.

SMITH: Academia is the industry here, and pedigree never seemed to hurt Edward Kennedy, Senator John Forbes Kerry or former Governors William Weld and Mitt Romney. It is perhaps a sign of the times that even in Massachusetts, where income and education are higher and unemployment lower, candidates are scrambling to prove they are of the people as well as for the people. But what distinguishes Brown and Warren is the target of their wrath.

BROWN: The job losses are accelerating, the Washington bureaucrats are not listening...

SMITH: While Scott Brown is positioning as the populist crusading against big government, Elizabeth Warren aims at big business.

WARREN: I spent years standing up to Wall Street and the big banks, exposing their tricks and traps, fighting to get a fair shake for people.

SMITH: Republican consultant Todd Domke says this election might turn on what the average Joe here resents more: regulation and taxes or Wall Street and big banks.

DOMKE: A recent Gallup poll showed that, by far, more Americans thought that big government was a threat to the future rather than big business. But in Massachusetts, that gap is probably less.

SMITH: Ultimately, if it is Wall Street, not Washington, that's got Massachusetts voters most riled up, Warren may turn out to have the edge, convincing folks that she's the one fighting for the little guy.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.