On Thursday evening, Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic challenger in the Massachusetts Senate race, dusted off the debate skills that, in high school, won her a scholarship to George Washington University. Scott Brown, the Republican she wants to replace, raced from a Senate session in Washington, D.C., and polished up his Massachusetts accent—as if, after every line, he were going to pat some working Joe on the back with an “Amirite?”
Brown began the night with opening comments needling Warren about the Cherokee “controversy.” (Full disclosure: Amelia Warren Tyagi, Elizabeth Warren's daughter, is chair of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, Demos.) The claim is that, at some point in her career, she checked off a box to identify herself as a Native American. “Clearly she’s not,” he said. How will we know if it affected her acceptance to law school or her hiring as a professor at Harvard? Only if she releases all her personnel records. In response, Warren repeated a story she’s told before, that her family had told her about their heritage, and she never asked for proof. She never benefited, she said. But Brown wanted to know whether she’d gotten something that others “were entitled to.”
The suggestion that Warren has benefited from some unacknowledged affirmative-action scheme is meant to make working-class whites and other Brown-leaning Democrats associate Warren with a branch of liberalism they’re suspicious of. At one point, Brown even called out, “All you union guys out there!” before attacking Warren’s objection to the Keystone XL pipeline. But it’s not the crux of his message about her. The Cherokee story is meant to set up the big point he wants to make about Warren, one that he put in clear English while they were talking about his votes on equal pay for women and for access to birth control. “She’s not telling you the truth,” he said.
It’s Brown’s best shot at this point. Polls since the Democratic convention—at which Warren gave a rousing speech—have shown Warren up by ever-more-decisive leads. Some of his attacks were brutal—he knocked her for work she did as an attorney on an asbestos damage case that voters will remember.
Voters like Warren. And tonight she gave them more reason. She was smooth and cool (arguably a bit too cool), and though she reminded watchers at the beginning that this is the first time she’s debated in a campaign forum like this, she seemed like a pro. She took advantage of every opportunity to hammer home her main attack on Brown: that he votes with his party and that he votes to protect millionaires from tax increases at the expense of working families. Warren wants voters to remember that his election might tip the Senate to the Republicans, and that means a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans as chairs of important Senate committees. She’s saying that, even if he’s as bipartisan as he claims, his party is extreme.
Brown wants voters to think he’s the only one who will work across the aisle and that Warren is too radical to be trusted. “Can you imagine 100 Senator Warrens down there?” he asked once. Both candidates threw a lot of numbers around. When Warren challenged Brown’s championing of the amendment he co-sponsored with Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican, that would have allowed employers and insurance companies to deny birth-control coverage because of moral objections, Brown said, “You have to stop scaring women.” Count that as a point for Warren.
Warren often looked bemused as her opponent spoke; Brown tended to look down at his podium, studiously taking notes. She stuck with her criticism of his support for oil-industry subsidies. When they talked about education, Brown tried to make the odd point that Warren makes a lot of money as a professor, and maybe that’s why universities cost so much. My Twitter timeline gave the win to Warren, but my Twitter timeline is full of Warren fans.
Warren has a command of the issues and a smooth smartness when she talks. But don’t underestimate Brown’s appeal—he talks about issues in a micro way that families will feel to be true, even if it’s not always about the way macro policy works. The dig about Warren’s pay is important. She’s running as an everywoman from humble beginnings—just as Brown campaigns as a regular guy—and the senator wants to remind voters that she’s now part of an elite world. The Massachusetts Senate race stands out in the 2012 field in a way that few political races ever do—both candidates are popular with voters, and voters think they’re both nice. In fact, after Brown launched his Cherokee attack, Warren said, “I think Senator Brown is a nice guy.” In response, Brown countered, “I think you’re a nice woman, too. You’re a good teacher and a hard worker.”