Actually, Elizabeth Warren is doing pretty well

A New Republic piece asserts her campaign against Scott Brown has gone off track. But the race is still tied!

Published August 10, 2012 4:03PM (EDT)

In The New Republic, Alex MacGillis presents a portrait of Elizabeth Warren as an unexpectedly floundering Senate candidate at risk of losing a race her party should be winning:

And yet, in one of the bluest states in the country, Warren is running well behind Barack Obama, deadlocked with Scott Brown in her bid for a seat that many Democrats had assumed would be an easy pickup. “I’m candidly perplexed by what’s going on,” says Tom Birmingham, the former Democratic president of the state Senate. “Because I did think that, if the Democrats had a strong candidate—and I would have regarded Elizabeth Warren as a strong candidate—that we’d really be in a favorable position.”

There’s some good stuff in the piece, and at least anecdotally there’s something to it: I’ve heard more than a few Democrats in and out of Massachusetts express concern that Warren has adopted a style that’s too cautious and scripted (where are the viral moments?) and that her campaign has at times seemed off its game (particularly during the needlessly protracted Cherokee drama).

But I still think the framing MacGillis uses is wrong. The reality is that if you judge the race by measurable metrics like polling and fundraising, Warren is doing quite well – and far, far better than just about anyone thought she or any other Democratic candidate would be doing when this cycle began.

It’s easy to get distracted by the Bay State’s Democratic bent, but there’s never been any question that Warren would run well behind Obama in Massachusetts this fall, and it’s not alarming that she is. Brown’s unusual personal appeal to political independents and culturally conservative Democrats is well-established. A recent Suffolk poll gave him a 58-28 percent favorable rating, making him the most personally popular politician in the state. At one point last year, the DSCC’s own polling put Brown’s approval score at 73 percent.

This is why one big-name Democrat after another – including Vicki Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Marty Meehan, every current member of the House, and Deval Patrick – all passed last year on the chance to run against him. It’s why Boston Mayor Tom Menino said of Brown in January 2011 that “there’s nobody that can beat him.” And it’s why until last summer Democrats seemed destined to choose Brown’s opponent from a pool of almost comically underwhelming B-list candidates.

Nor was Warren necessarily seen as a threat to Brown when she got serious about the race. But she captured the imagination of her party’s base with a viral video last September, began raising stunning sums of money, and by last fall found herself in a polling dead heat with the incumbent. And for all that’s happened since then, that’s basically where the race still is today.

MacGillis’ piece captures the cultural connection Brown has forged with many residents who traditionally vote Democratic. But again, he’d established this connection before this race began, and there’s never been any reason to doubt that he’d win a pure popularity contest against Warren – or, really, anyone else. Warren’s challenge is to be likable and acceptable enough to voters who like Brown but typically vote Democratic, and to persuade them that it’s more important to elect a Democrat to the Senate.

She may end up failing to do this, and it could be that something she’s already said or done will haunt her in the fall. We’re also overdue for some fresh polling, so it’s possible that race has shifted in Brown’s favor in the last few weeks. But for now, it’s unfair to say that Warren is flailing, or even underperforming. This has been an even race for nearly a year, and all of the evidence we have says it still is. And if you’d told Democrats a year ago that their candidate would be tied with Brown three months before Election Day, they would have been ecstatic.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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