Is Elizabeth Warren the answer for Democrats in Mass.?

at 02:57 PM ET, 07/18/2011


Elizabeth Warren testifies during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)
The Obama Administration’s decision to pass over Elizabeth Warren for the helm of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be personally disappointing for Warren, who has spent the better part of a year building the agency into what it is today.

But for Democrats looking for a viable challenger to Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), it’s a new day.

For the last few months, Warren’s name has circulated as a possible challenger to Brown. Now that President Obama has chosen former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the CFPB, Warren can turn her focus to potentially joining the Republicans who torpedoed her nomination in the Senate. And she confirmed Monday that she’ll do just that.

For now, Democrats appear to have settled on Warren as their last, best hope. But is it justified? Is she a good candidate, or just the best of what’s left?

Even among those who like Warren, the jury is out.

Democrats see Warren as a strong potential recruit for several reasons.

First is that the Democratic field, as it stands, is relatively undistinguished. City Year founder Alan Khazei had a strong second quarter of fundraising, pulling in more than $900,000, but Democrats aren’t sold that he would be a strong alternative to the popular Brown. And the rest of the field — including Newton Mayor Setti Warren (no relation to Elizabeth Warren) — raised very small sums for the quarter, especially compared to Brown’s $9.6 million war chest.

The second reason is just that: money. Brown is one of the top fundraisers in the Senate, but Democrats think Warren would be right there with him, making the race into a cause celebre for liberals who would bankroll her run and turn it into a national campaign.

And thirdly, Democrats like the contrast the Warren could provide as someone who has spend so much time working on behalf of consumers. They think that’s a good contrast to throw up against Brown, whose own everyman image (think: the pick-up truck ads) is the heart of his popularity in the state. Democrats hope to paint Brown as too closely allied with Wall Street — though Republicans point out that he supported Democrats’ Wall Street reform bill.

“That kind of dynamic would be devastating on Brown’s attempt to appeal to working-class Democrats,” said one national Democratic campaign operative.

But not all Democrats are as convinced that Elizabeth Warren would so instantly become the Democratic frontrunner.

They point out that Warren has never run for political office before, isn’t a terribly well-known political quantity in her home state, and that her profile may not be as ideal as her party hopes.

Mostly, though, they question whether she can handle herself as a candidate — a concern that is underlined after state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s (D) lackluster performance against Brown in the 2010 special election.

“No one knows that until she starts running,” said Massachusetts Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh. “If you’ve never run before, that’s always a concern. Even when people have run before and then they try to move up, sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Brown was credited about as much for his 2010 special election victory as Coakley was. Quite simply, she had a tough time relating to regular voters, and many Democrats say that as her undoing.

Warren, for all her work on behalf of consumers and her status as a favorite of the left, is still a Harvard professor who hasn’t done retail politics before.

And during her limited time in the spotlight, she hasn’t exactly hit the ball out of the park, including engaging in an awkward exchange with House Republican lawmakers at a hearing earlier this year, during which she complained that she had to leave the hearing for scheduling reasons. Republicans also pointed out Monday that, during an appearance on MSNBC, she offered a bit of a tortured response to a question about the Boston Red Sox — the same issue that tripped up Coakley.

Overall, the picture of candidate Warren is one that has yet to take shape. And for now, Democrats in Massachusetts aren’t counting her as the next Ted Kennedy — or anything even remotely close.

Former Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston said the questions are indeed valid, and that Warren will have to prove herself if she does run.

“People who haven’t run for office before don’t understand that it’s the hardest thing they’ll do in their lives,” he said. “I have no idea whether she’s up for that.”

 
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