Way More Mr. Nice Guy
Scott Brown rode his pickup, barn coat, and genuine likability all the way to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Two years later the charm offensive is back and bigger than ever. But can Brown convince Massachusetts voters to return him to Washington just because he’s a good man?
Just before Father’s Day, Brown’s campaign launched a pair of ads, called “Dad” and “Husband,” highlighting his role as an omelet-making family man. The commercials featured Brown’s wife, the television reporter Gail Huff, and his two daughters, Ayla and Arianna. “Scott’s always been the one who encouraged me professionally,” Huff tells the camera, “encouraged me to have my own life, to have my own identity. He’s always been very, very sure about the women in his life to have their own lives. He is, by far, the most understanding of women probably of any man I know.”
Absent from the ads are any mention that Brown’s a Republican—a fact he rarely brings up on the campaign trail, either. What you do hear a lot about from Brown is bipartisanship. In January, a CQ Weekly study ranked him the second-most-bipartisan senator in 2011 for having voted with his party only 54 percent of the time. (Other studies put that figure at closer to 70 percent.) He touts the dozen or so endorsements he’s gotten from local Democrats, including former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and Medford City Councilor Rick Caraviello. Mayor Tom Menino has so far declined to officially endorse anyone in the Brown-Warren race, but his silence all but amounts to siding with Brown. And then there’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Medford native and powerful political independent, who in July announced that he was for Brown.
In an effective display of good-guy-ness, Brown proposed a ban in January on all negative ads from third-party groups. Warren quickly signed on. The pledge was supposed to ensure that the race focused on the issues rather than on the tearing down of the candidates, but it’s had the unexpected effect of removing issues from the race entirely. The television ads that have run have, for the most part, been superficial, like Brown’s “Dad” and “Husband.”
But that doesn’t mean the candidates haven’t found other ways to go after each other. In interviews and campaign mailings, Brown attacks Warren for being out of touch with regular Massachusetts voters. He refers to her as “Professor Warren,” and highlights her comment that she provided the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street. He also characterizes her as an elitist, which is curious given that he attended prestigious private institutions (Tufts and Boston College), while Warren went to state schools (the University of Houston and Rutgers).
But Brown’s most successful line of attack came after the Herald reported in April that Warren had made claims of Cherokee ancestry on several occasions, including while at Harvard. The implication was that Warren had benefited from affirmative-action policies even though she wasn’t actually Native American. Warren provided no documentation of her heritage, and, after a couple of flailing responses to the charges, stopped talking about the issue for two weeks. The story quickly went national. When Warren finally did respond, she appeared unprepared and awkward. Brown surrogates, meanwhile, worked hard to keep the issue in the news. Though a Suffolk University poll in late May found that 69 percent of voters believed it was not a “significant story,” the controversy gave Brown something else to focus on whenever he was asked about Warren’s assertions that he was a senator who represented not his own state but Wall Street. The Cherokee issue, he argued, was evidence of ?Warren’s “credibility problem.”
Brown’s strategy of contrasting his fair-mindedness with his opponent’s alleged extremism appears to be working. Though Warren has the advantage of being the Democrat in the race, and though she has out-fundraised Brown—she brought in $8.6 million in the second quarter, compared with his $5 million—the contest remains close. At press time, polls showed the candidates tied, with each getting the support of about 43 percent of respondents. Meanwhile, 49 percent of those polled in a late-June survey by Public Policy Polling saw Brown as an “independent voice for Massachusetts.” Only 39 percent believed him to be a “partisan voice for the national Republican Party.”
“Warren’s task should have been easier—reminding Massachusetts voters that she is with them on the issues and showing that a Harvard law professor can be likable,” says Boston College’s Landy. “The Cherokee business may not change votes, but it heightens a perception that Brown has a better character, which in addition to his likability and his show of independence on social questions has enabled him to remain competitive despite his heavy partisan handicap.”