Senator Brown's reelection campaign received distressing news Wednesday afternoon when a new poll released by PPP showed Democrat Elizabeth Warren – the Harvard professor and former Obama official – beating him in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race by a 46-44 margin. In early June, when the poll was last conducted, Brown garnered overwhelming support from likely voters and led by 15 percentage points. Now, the once seemingly untouchable incumbent – whose approval ratings reached as high as 73% in March 2011 – faces a formidable opponent in a race many believe will be one of the most hotly contested elections in 2012. The Hill reports:
The poll included 791 Massachusetts voters between Sept. 16-18 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. PPP is a Democratic polling firm and uses automated telephone surveys, but has a strong track record.
Tom Jenson, PPP’s director, said part of Warren’s surge might be due to the fact that the voters were polled days after Warren declared her Senate candidacy, when the media spotlight was on her and not Brown.
“I think people maybe need to look at this a little like they would a convention bounce that candidates get from time to time,” Jenson said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say Elizabeth Warren is the favorite now, but I do think it shows it is clearly going to be a very competitive race.”
While Warren’s jump in the polls will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, Republicans should not jump to conclusions. As Jeff Jacoby pointed out today in his column, Massachusetts politics is a fickle business and anything can happen. Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination, he suggests, may not even come to fruition. Jacoby contends that the 1984 election – the year Democratic U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas decided not to seek reelection – could be a harbinger for what’s to come in 2012.
In 1984, Republicans sought to capitalize on a rare opportunity in Massachusetts by retaking Tsongas’ vacated senate seat. The only way to win, they believed, was to bring in a nationally recognized candidate, Elliot Richardson, to vie for the Republican nomination. As the campaign progressed, however, the strategy backfired and Richardson lost in a landslide to Ray Shamie, a local businessman:
Richardson had had an extraordinary career. He was a decorated combat veteran who had been editor of the Harvard Law Review and a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In Massachusetts in the 1960s, he had been elected lieutenant governor and attorney general. He had been the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. He had served two presidents in four Cabinet posts -- as US attorney general and as secretary of commerce, secretary of defense, and secretary of health, education, and welfare. So when he agreed to jump into the Massachusetts Senate race, many party leaders were thrilled.
Opinion polls showed Richardson a heavy favorite over Shamie. Prominent DC Republicans endorsed him. But Shamie had no intention of gracefully bowing out. Neither did his campaign staff. (I had worked on Shamie's first race, and was one of two deputy campaign managers in 1984). And over the spring and summer it gradually it became clear that the Man with the Golden Resume wasn't a very good candidate. He made strategic mistakes. He reacted badly to criticism, and distanced himself from his party's platform. Meanwhile Shamie's avuncular style and focused message galvanized the GOP base.
By September, Richardson's campaign was in free fall. Shamie won the nomination in a 25-point landslide.
In other words, history teaches us that even the most formidable, established and politically experienced candidates, contenders like Elizabeth Warren, may not necessarily win their party’s primary, and Massachusetts is no different. While she has made tremendous progress in the polls recently – and is backed by influential liberal organizations and several labor unions – the outcome is far from certain given the ever-growing Democratic field she must compete against. Furthermore, even if she wins the nomination, earlier this month Senator Brown’s approval ratings reached as high as 54% -- with only 25% of voters holding an unfavorable opinion of him.
But, of course, it’s too early to worry fourteen months before any election. Senator Brown is, after all, an incumbent who has faithfully served his constituents since entering federal office. While it will be interesting to see how the election unfolds, Brown’s popularity amongst Independents – who have historically comprised nearly 50% of the electorate – will ultimately determine his fate and the future of the Republican Party in Massachusetts for years to come.
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