OPINION: Elizabeth Warren’s Senate bid

The following opinion piece was written by Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles. He is director of BU’s State House Program and a long-time observer of Massachusetts politics. A former AP Boston and USA Today national reporter, he is also the author of Field Guide to Covering Local News.

The Senate candidacy of Elizabeth Warren offers liberals a revenge-fantasy movie script. If Warren were to become the junior senator from Massachusetts, she would return to Washington as a colleague of the Republicans who subjected Warren to rough handling at various hearings on the Obama administration’s plans for a consumer financial protection bureau. It would have made a great campaign clip if she had ended one of these hearings with the Schwarzeneggeresque statement: “I’ll be back.”

But Warren faces a tough road back to Washington. Although she is a darling of the Beltway media set, she is not a household name in Massachusetts. She would have to garner the attention and following in a primary campaign against at least seven other Democrats. And she will have to overcome GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s advantage as a popular incumbent. But anything is possible given the seesaw swing of Massachusetts voters who elected Republican Brown in a special election then re-elected the entire Massachusetts Democratic ticket in 2010.

Warren is an engaging personality and plain speaker. She comes across well on television and should thrive in debates with both her Democratic rivals and, if she makes it to the next level, against Brown. She also will have Doug Rubin, one of the state’s best Democratic operatives, in her corner. He engineered the successful gubernatorial election of then little known Deval Patrick.

Some Massachusetts Republicans have already attacked Warren’s egghead credentials as a Harvard professor. But running against Harvard in Massachusetts isn’t necessarily the right tact to take, and Warren doesn’t come across as a cerebrally distant liberal academic in the mode of Attorney General Martha Coakley, the loser to Brown in 2010.

Warren sounded more like a populist in her work for Obama on financial reform and her spirited criticism of Wall Street and the banking cabal. Running against those institutions may give her solid traction among Massachusetts independents. It could also be the chink in Brown’s armor. Brown has remained popular in Massachusetts by navigating the tightrope act of limited partisanship as a relatively independent Republican.

But the one area Brown has toed the party line has been his support of business. That may not go down well among voters with the economy still adrift, banks reluctant to loan the cache of money they are holding, and Wall Street wise guys still commanding huge salaries and tax breaks. Warren, with her command of the issues and her engaging personality, could marshal that anti-Big Business sentiment in a run against Brown.

But Warren will have to run hard. She needs both traditional name recognition and a social media buzz to overcome Brown’s advantages. That will mean non-stop, retail campaigning and a hefty war chest to finance a media blitz to introduce her to voters and make the case why Brown should come home and she should be sent to Washington.

Contact Bayles at 617-353-3484; bayles@bu.edu