Elizabeth Warren is now officially off and running for the United States Senate, and while there's technically no guarantee that she'll even win the Democratic nomination (several other candidates have been running for months), it may not be much an exaggeration to say that her party's hopes of hanging on to the U.S. Senate depend on her.
Right now, Democrats own a 53-47 majority in the chamber, but around ten of their seats are vulnerable or potentially vulnerable in next year's elections. Republicans, by contrast, will only have to defend ten seats in 2012 and almost all of them look safe for the GOP. Scott Brown's Massachusetts seat is one of the two obvious exceptions right now (Nevada is the other). So if Warren lives up to her hype, it could change the national math decisively.
"Hype," though, is the key word here. Because Warren is entirely untested as a political candidate. All we know is that is that she has attracted a passionate following among national progressive activists, which should translate into a sizable, small donation-fueled campaign treasury, and that the media exposure she's received these past two years has given her modest name recognition in Massachusetts. She has a compelling, genuinely populist story to tell voters, but whether she's capable of telling it well and whether it will resonate are open questions.
She also faces a more basic challenge: Brown, the Republican incumbent, remains quite popular with Massachusetts voters. A recent poll showed the second-year senator with a 54-25 percent favorable/unfavorable rating. That's actually down from the numbers Brown received in Democrats' own polling earlier this year, but it's still enough to make him more popular than Governor Deval Patrick, Senator John Kerry and the state's other big-name politicians. (Warren scored a 17-13 percent favorable rating in the same poll.)
Of course, Massachusetts voters also have a demonstrated aversion to the GOP: Brown is the only Republican Senate candidate since 1972 to receive more than 45 percent of the vote in the state, the House delegation has been entirely Democratic since 1996, and no GOP nominee has come within 20 points of winning it at the presidential level since 1988.
So Warren's hopes will rest on whether voters are willing to separate their generally positive personal views of Brown from their generally negative views of his national party. Will this actually happen? This is where things get interesting.
The idea that it will is bolstered by some relatively recent Massachusetts history. Back in 1996, Republican Governor William Weld was something of a political rock star in the state. Two years earlier, he'd won a record-shattering reelection victory with 71 percent of the vote, carrying virtually every city and town in the state, and he brought enormous personal popularity to the Senate race. But Massachusetts voters were also in revolt against the national GOP in 1996, thanks to the Republican "revolution" of 1994, which firmly established the GOP as a Southern/religious-dominated party. With Bill Clinton carrying the state by 33 points over Bob Dole, Weld lost the Senate race to John Kerry by 7.5 points.
We've seen similar stories in other states. Think of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee in 2006. A liberal, anti-Iraq Republican with a famous (within the state) name, Chafee did everything imaginable to convince his blue state electorate to overlook his party label, and he made it to Election Day with an approval rating that hovered around 60 percent. But the climate of '06, particularly in a state like Rhode Island, was so fanatically anti-Republican that Chafee still lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse by seven points. Oregon Republican Gordon Smith faced a similarly impossible situation in 2008. Despite strong personal popularity and his decision to turn on the Iraq war, he was still edged out for reelection by Jeff Merkley, a rather generic candidate whose campaign was mainly powered by the fact that he wasn't a Republican.
When it comes to Warren, the Democratic line is that because 2012 will be a presidential election year, the Massachusetts electorate will look much different than it did in the 2010 special election in which Brown won his seat -- younger, more diverse, less conservative. This, they theorize, will produce an effect similar to 1996, when the weight of Dole and the Gingrich GOP Congress was just too much for Weld to bear. And maybe it will. After all, the same new poll that gives Brown a 54-25 percent favorable rating also shows him just nine points ahead of Warren, even though most voters haven't even heard of her yet.
But if you think Brown absolutely can't survive in a presidential climate, just remember the example of Susan Collins. Like Brown, the Maine Republican entered her reelection race in 2008 with wide personal popularity and a target on her back. National Democrats knew they were going to carry Maine comfortably in the presidential race and began thinking about coattails. So they recruited Tom Allen, a long-serving congressman from Portland, to oppose Collins and poured serious money into the race. But it didn't work. On the same day that Obama racked up 58 percent of the vote in Maine, Collins crushed Allen by 23 points. 40 percent of Obama's supporters crossed over and voted for her.
Collins' win was chalked up to her personal popularity and her efforts to separate herself from her national party and to play up her moderate credentials. Of course, Smith in Oregon, Chafee in Rhode Island and Weld in Massachusetts all had the same things going for them but lost anyway. What was the difference? Weld in '96 was challenging a Democratic incumbent and had his governorship to fall back on, which may have factored into voters' thinking, but Smith and Chafee were in almost the exact same situation as Collins. It's hard to say what (if anything) Collins did right and they did wrong.
What Brown does have going for him is that the 2012 climate won't be nearly as favorable to Democrats as it was in 2008, 2006 or 1996. Yes, Obama will win Massachusetts easily, but his margin may be narrower this time, especially if the GOP nominates former Governor Mitt Romney. The GOP label still figures to hurt Brown, but the damage may not be that severe. In the past, I've written skeptically about Warren's chances, mainly because of Brown's popularity. But it's fair to say that it's an open question whether he's another Susan Collins ... or another Gordon Smith.