Elizabeth Warren’s gamble

Can forceful advocacy for same-sex marriage and appeal to blue collar swing voters go hand-in-hand?

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Elizabeth Warren’s gambleElizabeth Warren

Generally, it’s not news when a Democratic candidate for office in Massachusetts speaks out in favor of same-sex marriage, something that’s been legal in the state for nearly a decade now. But if the candidate happens to be running in the most closely watched Senate race in the country and publicly takes her party’s president to task for not sharing her position on the issue, it becomes a national story.

“I want to see the president evolve,” Elizabeth Warren said in an interview with the Washington Blade that went viral on Thursday, “because I believe that is right; marriage equality is morally right.”

The obvious significance of Warren’s comments is that they amplify the pressure on Barack Obama from liberals who believe he is personally fine with gay marriage and that only election year trepidation – what if it costs me two points in Ohio? – is holding him back from saying so. It’s still very likely that Obama will stick with his cautious posture at least through November, but marriage supporters in his party could make things awkward and uncomfortable for him this summer by forcing the issue as the Democratic platform is assembled.

What may be more interesting, though, is whether Warren’s willingness to embrace the issue so forcefully impacts her candidacy in Massachusetts. As Greg Sargent points out, it’s actually plausible that this will hurt her:

Scott Brown opposes marriage equality, and Warren is under heavy attack right now over cultural issues. Brown and national Republicans are attacking her regularly over her support for Obama’s contraception coverage mandate, which they are falsely portraying as anti-Catholic.

Meanwhile, Republicans are regularly painting her as an elitist, describing her as “Professor Elizabeth Warren” whenever possible, as part of a broader effort to portray her as out of touch with the values of ordinary folks. Coming out for marriage equality could obviously provide her opponents with more fodder to drag the race back on to old culture war turf. So this is anything but a political slam dunk for her.

This speaks to the challenge at the heart of Warren’s campaign: winning back a critical chunk of the blue collar voters who inherited Democratic loyalties but defected to Brown in his 2010 special election campaign.

The promise of her candidacy is that her unusual knack for communicating progressive economic ideas in compelling and digestible ways will nudge these voters to look beyond their instinctive attraction to Brown and his average-Joe-with-a-pick-up-truck image and consider the radically different policy priorities of both parties. And she’s off to a promising start. A year ago, before Warren stepped forward as a candidate, it seemed like Massachusetts Democrats were ready to concede the race to Brown, but the most recent poll puts her five points ahead of the incumbent.

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But as Sargent notes, playing up the gay marriage battle could distract those same voters from Warren’s economic message. This probably seems a bit counterintuitive, given that polls show Massachusetts voters support gay marriage by a two-to-one margin. But there may be a big difference in how many of those voters see the issue at the state level, where it’s a matter of settled law, and at the national level, where the pressure on Obama to change his position is coming almost exclusively from the left.

The risk for Warren of being too closely associated with cultural liberalism was on display last weekend at an annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston. The event, which traditionally attracts the biggest names in state politics, is dominated by the sorts of blue collar, culturally conservative Democrats Warren must appeal to. Both Warren and Brown showed up, but organizers and attendees made their preference for the Republican incumbent quite clear. The Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi described one particular performance from a local Democratic politician that perfectly encapsulated the resistance Warren faces:

Brown also served as inspiration for a little ditty warbled by Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan, also of South Boston. To the tune of “Oh Danny Boy,’’ Linehan sang that “Lizzie’’ – Elizabeth Warren, Brown’s likely Democratic challenger – would be campaigning with “Deval and Barney close at hand.’’ If Brown’s in luck, crooned Linehan, “she’ll bring them to Southie.’’ For Democrats like that, he went on, “Southie’s a foreign land.’

Those lines played on the fact that Deval Patrick is the first African-American governor of Massachusetts; and that Frank, who is leaving Congress after three decades, is gay. But to this crowd of old-time Boston pols, jibes like that are all innocent fun and games.

Vennochi went on to suggest that the mindset of the Southie crowd is increasingly alien to the state’s independent voters, and that Warren may yet get the last laugh. This is certainly possible, but it’s worth remembering that a key ingredient in Brown’s ’10 victory was his strength in midsize, working-class cities and large blue collar towns.

In a way, Warren’s challenge mirrors that of the national Democratic Party, which suffered a catastrophic 2010 midterm election in large part because blue collar voters swung hard to the GOP. Like Warren, Obama needs to win back a good number of them if he’s going to win this November. Apparently, he’s decided that being a forceful advocate for gay marriage will complicate this effort. Warren has reached a different conclusion. If she’s rewarded at the polls, it may just make it easier for Obama – and a lot of other Democrats – to evolve on the issue.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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