Will Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts win re-election this November? Or will he be defeated by his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren? The answer, clearly, is "yes."
I've been thinking about writing this post for a while. Frank Phillips' story in today's Boston Globe on Democrats who are panicking over the latest polls seems like as good a hook as any, so here we go.
From the moment Warren announced her candidacy, I've been struck by the fever-pitch feel that has permeated the race. Not among ordinary voters, of course; they won't tune in until after Labor Day. But political junkies are fully engaged, as you know if you dip into the Twitter streams at #masen and #mapoli.
It seems to me that we've got a race between two very good candidates. I think Warren is the best the Democrats could have hoped for -- not just better than the unknowns and wannabes who were running before she got into the race, but better than any member of the state's Democratic establishment, with the possible exception of Gov. Deval Patrick.
Warren is articulate, she's an economic populist, she combines insider experience with outsider credentials (how many people have managed to piss off both Republicans and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner?) and she's almost as pretty as Brown.
Nor has she made any major missteps to this point. Brown supporters have tried to make hay of her endorsement of the Occupy movement, but that's not going to play. The repeated references to her as "Professor" Warren are kind of pathetic. Anti-intellectualism does not have the sort of appeal in Massachusetts that it does in, say, Texas.
But some Democrats seem surprised, at the very least, that Brown didn't topple like a rotten tree at the first sign that he'd have a serious opponent. Those sentiments vastly underestimate Brown's strengths. In fact, I can think of two only first-class political talents to emerge in Massachusetts in the post-Michael Dukakis era: Patrick and Brown. (If Mitt Romney didn't have a zillion dollars, I'm not sure he could win a seat on the Belmont Board of Selectmen.)
Democrats ignore the reality that no one is really angry at Brown other than liberal activists. He was elected just a little more than two years ago, and the glow from his startling victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley has not fully faded. Massachusetts voters have traditionally liked having a Republican in a statewide position, and with the governor's office now in Democratic hands, Brown has that working for him as well. My sense is that a lot of voters are still rather pleased with themselves for their role in Brown's win, and it's going to take more than Warren's just showing up to get them to change their minds.
Nor should anyone discount Brown's political instincts, which are superb. Brown has been a master of not taking strong stands on divisive issues, leaving himself free to bend when it's necessary for his survival as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. It took a while, but he eventually came around to voting for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He was among the very few Republicans who voted in favor of financial regulation, although he also loses points for his role in weakening those regulations.
The outlier in Brown's record is his staunch support for the Blunt amendment, which would undo President Obama's compromise on birth-control coverage at colleges, hospitals and other secular employers owned by religious institutions. Although Brown's stand doesn't seem to have hurt him in the polls so far, I think those who argue his rising poll numbers reflect public support for Blunt are wrong. Again, people just aren't paying attention yet.
Why did Brown do it? Who knows? Maybe he's acting on principle. Maybe the Senate leadership believes it has let Brown stray from the reservation too often and demanded his fealty on this one. In the long run, Brown's support for Blunt will probably hurt him at the margins, but it's not likely to determine the outcome of the race.
So what will determine the outcome? My guess is turnout. If this weren't a presidential-election year, Brown would probably be a shoo-in for re-election. But with Obama on the ballot, a lot of people in Massachusetts are going to come out on Election Day looking to vote a straight Democratic ticket. The likelihood that Romney will be Obama's Republican opponent only makes matters worse for Brown. Romney is not popular here except among the state's tiny band of Republicans.
Predictions are futile. But I would imagine that whoever wins, it's going to be extremely close. My advice: Don't sell Brown short. And chill out. It's only March.