Scott Brown’s class identity problem

Freshly released tax returns could complicate the regular-guy-with-a-truck act

Topics: War Room,

Scott Brown’s class identity problemScott Brown (Credit: AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

Scott Brown and his campaign badly want to frame his Massachusetts Senate race against Elizabeth Warren as a choice between a regular, pickup-truck-driving guy and a rich, elitist academic. But there’s at least one area where this contrast just doesn’t exist: their tax forms.

After a week of public squabbling, both candidates publicly released several years of tax returns earlier today, and it turns out their incomes aren’t very different. According to the Boston Globe’s report, Brown and his wife (a former television reporter at Boston’s ABC affiliate) took in $510,856 in 2011. The total for Warren and her husband: $616,181. Their 2010 returns tell a similar story, with Brown reporting around $840,000 in income and Warren about $955,000. Those totals put each of them near the top of the income scale. There’s a wider gulf in earlier years, before Brown’s 2010 Senate victory, which he parlayed into a lucrative book deal.

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The Globe quotes Brown pointing out that he has “never commented” on Warren’s wealth, which may be true, but his campaign has attacked her as “Millionaire Warren,” and he’s made it his custom to refer to her as “Professor Warren,” an obvious effort to create cultural distance between her and blue-collar voters.

Class identity is at the heart of Brown’s appeal, and played a key role in his ’10 win over Martha Coakley, when he carried a number of midsize working-class cities and towns that traditionally vote Democratic. The threat of Warren is that her own personal story – a self-made woman from humble origins – and her ability to communicate progressive economic ideas with charisma and clarity will play well in those areas and, more broadly, with middle-class voters. This is why Brown is trying hard to fortify his own working-guy image.

But his tax returns could complicate things a bit. Yes, he can point to Warren’s income and remind voters that she’s part of the top 1 percent, furthering his campaign’s absurd (but maybe effective?) claim this makes her a “hypocrite” for advocating for the bottom 99 percent.  But the next time he accuses Warren of being a limousine liberal who’s detached from the day-to-day realities of middle-class life, she can now turn to him and say, “Actually, Scott, you’re just as far from removed from the middle class as I am.”

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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