Elizabeth Warren: Lady in Red

Does it really cost more than $42 million to win a Senate seat?

20120322_365 Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren photo by mdfriendofhillary on Flickr

It turns out it cost newly elected Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren more than $42 million to defeat incumbent Scott Brown in November—$400,000 more, to be exact. That’s how much debt the Warren campaign said yesterday that it had accrued, even after having recorded one of the largest fundraising hauls in senatorial campaign history.

While many have been quick to point out the irony of the Harvard debt and bankruptcy scholar running her own campaign into the red, it’s not all that uncommon for a campaign to end in debt. The uncommon part of all this is that so much money had to be spent in the first place. Does it really cost more than $42 million to become a senator in America these days? If you’re in full-blown panic about the guy who won the seat last time, it does.

Back on Election Day, I heard that panic first-hand. When I walked through my front door after voting, the phone rang in the kitchen. Still edgy from the weeks of incessant robocalling, I approached the phone with caution, hesitating to pick it up but then figuring, surely those calls are over now.

And yet, whose voice did I hear on the other end of the phone? Elizabeth Warren’s, of course. For a moment I thought maybe she was calling to thank me for my vote. But then I heard the worry in her hastily recorded message. She said voter turnout was looking low. She urged me—begged, really—to get out and vote for her.

Liz, I wanted to say, I just did. Please put down the phone. My voting location in Central Square was packed. The polls are looking good in your favor. You’re going to be our next senator. You can put your feet up now, relax.

I remembered that phone call yesterday when I heard Warren’s explanation for her campaign debt. She cited those last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts—including pizza and coffee for campaign volunteers—as the main sources of unforeseen expense. That call she made to me was certainly money not well spent.

But those expenses were really just symptoms. The real reason her campaign’s mountain of donor money still didn’t cover the costs of her enterprise stemmed from something more primal—sheer, unadulterated panic, coupled with the the abject fear that, in a state bedeviled by a history of not putting women in the highest positions of government, Warren would go down as no more than another fumbling Martha Coakley, that the professor would have to slink back to Harvard, the Senate would tip Republican, and the barn coat would win.

I can’t blame Warren or other Democrats for their panic. They’ve been burned so many times before. But I do hope big donors saved some of their millions. Because, if John Kerry gets tapped for higher service, which is highly possible, they may have to shell out another $42 million-plus to keep Brown from ending up back where this story began.

I, for one, will be unplugging my phone.

  • Amanda

    Thank you for at least being clear and honest with your readers, unlike Glen Johnson, that accumulating some campaign debt is a normal, unsurprising part of running expensive, modern political campaigns.

    That the Warren campaign’s debt represents only a modest 1% of her total raised is actually pretty impressive. Lots of campaigns end up in much worse shape.

    As for why the Warren (and Brown) campaigns spent so much money in this race, I don’t see how this fact can be blamed on Warren (or Brown). It’s not like either one of them invented our (admittedly) ridiculous and obscene campaign finance system; they just had to live in it and deal with it.

    And in Warren’s case, in order to win a modern campaign for high level office in an extremely expensive media market against a formidable incumbent — with the added “bonus” of being female in a state that has stubbornly refused to elect women to high office for decade after decade — I don’t see how it is in any way surprising that the Warren campaign had to raise and spend an historic level of money.

    Despite the fact that she won by 8 points, that win and that margin were in no way ever guaranteed. It would have been political malpractice (you’re right to cite Coakley by the way!) NOT to raise as much as possible — and not too work insanely hard right up until the last minute to make sure every supporter voted — to ensure adequate resources and turnout in this extremely tough race.

    None of that money raised and none of that effort expended — and I say this as a person who donated several hundred dollars to Warren’s campaign and as a person who, along with many others, gave hundreds of hours of volunteer time doorknocking and phonecalling and pollchecking for Warren’s campaign, including in my case 20 hours on Election Day — none of that effort was in any way wasted in my opinion.

    In fact, it would have been the height of arrogance for the Warren campaign not to pull out all the stops on fundraising and voter outreach. Election wins are EARNED. Just ask Martha Coakley. 🙂

    • bob

      Their agreement also meant that all funding went through the campaign, rather than through outside groups, bumping up their fundraising totals as compared to those in other races.

  • agingcynic

    Wait until she starts spending OPM on solving social ills. We’re about to double down on the War on Poverty. I’m sure the results of the next 50 years will be SO much better than the last 50. Quid pro quo, baby!

  • http://Cambridge,MA steven Ozment

    What does the author expect? Democrat Warren earns and spends money in great, egreous sums like only a politician can do in our times – a naked display of wrechted excess in search of power beyond the means and needs of state politics and the American Union. It is a positive sign that Mrs. Warren displays such high anxiety over it, suggesting that losing her race would be a shaming.
    Her boss has no such fears, and his brow drops no sweat. He knows better than anyone else that the power is in the taking of the ballot box. As he put it almost biblically: “Voting is the best vengence.”
    Of course, everyone would like to be a winner, an important and even powerful person. Even a gal who has had it all and more, wants still again to bathe in the wallow of the anxious, ambitious, and greedy. Perhaps this might be called the`fitful cliff’.’