Elizabeth Warren V Scott Brown
It was interesting to be in the thick of things on my recent trip home.  The campaign in Massachusetts for the seat in the United States Senate held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy from 1963 until his death in 2009 has well and truly heated up.

Conflicting polls have shown both the incumbent, Republican Scott Brown, and his challenger, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, in the lead.  The findings have all hovered around the margin of error; observers believe that it is neck and neck.

The conventional wisdom had been that Warren, something of a celebrity candidate because of her high national profile, has what it takes to defeat Brown.  An accomplished Harvard Law School professor, she has been a tireless advocate for American consumers and presciently warned of the dangers of predatory lending practices long before the current crisis came to pass.  Indeed, the thinking was that Warren’s resume would render her an ideal fit for liberal Massachusetts.  Democrats nationally had been concerned about the potential pool of candidates to take on Brown before Warren declared her interest in the seat.

Moreover, as one prominent Democrat told me, Barack Obama is likely to win Massachusetts by more than 20 percentage points over the state’s profoundly unpopular former governor, Mitt Romney, in this presidential election year.  As such, he believes that the chances of a large enough slice of the electorate transferring its preference from Democrat to Republican on the very next line on the ballot are slim.

The logic and the math are very difficult to dispute.  Why then is the race so close?  There are three readily identifiable factors at work that reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.

First is that Elizabeth Warren is a completely untested political novice and, in the context of a contentious campaign that involves an extraordinary amount of scrutiny, something of an unknown quantity.  Doubt has been cast by Warren’s enemies in the media – especially the Boston Herald and its legendary columnist, Howie Carr – over her claims to have grown up in poverty and her Native American ancestry.  The latter issue just won’t go away.  Neither the candidate nor the campaign has dealt with it well.  As it gives rise to suspicion that Warren took advantage of her minority status to advance her career, there is no doubt but that it will damage her, particularly with white, working class voters.

Additionally, there is the “carpetbagger” problem.  Many voters in Massachusetts resent the idea that an outsider, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, is seeking to represent them in Washington, DC.  That she is a Harvard Law professor who lives in Cambridge only exacerbates things.  The Warren campaign has produced a television campaign ad in which voters with strong Boston accents praise the candidate for being a “fightah” to mitigate the perception of her as an outsider.  But it won’t go away that easily.

Second is that Scott Brown is a superb political candidate.  Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Brown’s opponent in 2010, discovered that his electoral appeal cannot be underestimated.

This time around, in full knowledge that Elizabeth Warren is going to aggressively court female voters and highlight their different positions on issues important to women, Brown has released two powerful television campaign ads featuring three of his most valuable political assets.  They are his wife, former Boston television news reporter, Gail Huff, and his two beautiful daughters, Ayla and Arianna.

In the first, Huff, a trusted and popular figure in her own right, notes how well a woman gets to know her husband over the course of a marriage and describes Brown as “probably the most understanding man of women I know.”  In the second, Huff recalls her very hectic days as a television reporter and states that Brown was the one who was always there for their two daughters because of his more flexible schedule as a self-employed lawyer.

While these two ads can’t erase Brown’s vote to allow employers with moral objections to birth control to deny health insurance coverage for it to female employees, they will vitiate any effort to paint him as anti-woman.  Also, Brown did fare much better with female voters in 2010 against his female opponent than virtually anyone would have predicted.

Third is the Irish, and the wider ethnic Catholic, vote in Massachusetts.  At home, I availed of the opportunity to discuss the campaign with Irish-Americans in city neighborhoods like Dorchester, in close-in suburbs like my native East Milton, and further down the South Shore – or “Irish Riviera” as it is commonly known – in Hingham.  The discussions were revealing and present a significant challenge to the Warren campaign.

Those with whom I spoke with are from traditional Boston Irish Democratic families.  They tend to be populist economically and more conservative socially.  Although most indicated that they would be voting to re-elect President Obama, in a majority of instances because of their distaste for former Governor Romney, many who plan to support the president do not plan to vote for Elizabeth Warren.

They are wary of her for a variety of reasons: her stridently pro-choice stance on abortion; the questions that have arisen over her upbringing and Native American heritage; the fact that she is not from Massachusetts, or even from anywhere nearby; and doubts about her capacity to empathize with them from within Harvard’s ivory tower.

The Warren campaign will need to work earnestly and reach out directly to this not inconsiderable segment of the electorate that could make the difference in November.  Elizabeth Warren will need to stress that she and her party, not Scott Brown and the Republicans, will stand up for them when it comes to access to higher education or the rights of labor unions or the regulation of the financial sector.  At the same time, cognizant of the reality that voters would rather have a beer with Scott Brown than with her, Warren must make the case that substance and conviction matter more than personality.  Warren just can’t take the votes of Irish-American Democrats, favorable disposed to Scott Brown because of his support of the E-3 visa bill, for granted.

These three factors will continue to shape the dynamics of the campaign.  It should be very interesting.  This columnist will be watching closely.