QUINCY, Mass.—Elizabeth Warren is in the right place, next to the hole in the highway. She exits an SUV and chats excitedly, one by one, with the construction workers and ironworkers who’d been waiting there for the photo op. It’s Aug. 14, and the foreman explains what’s being dug: a new road underneath the highway, one that will unchoke the traffic that flows down I-93 from Boston, a project monitored from the foreman’s trailer.
“How do you get any work done?” says Warren. “I’d just want to watch this all day!”
Warren tells the workers that she’d been watching the highway project since she “saw the model laid out” in a Quincy municipal building. “Quite frankly,” says Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, “none of the project would be possible without the help of the stimulus.”
A dozen reporters stand, digital recorders extended, to capture a conversation about public-private spending that has the rhythm, wordiness, and can-you-believe-this giddiness of the late-night infomercial for juice machines that comes on after you pass out during Real Housewives of Atlanta. Warren is thrilled, just thrilled. “The program I’ve put together,” she tells Koch, “is more effective in reducing the deficit than Scott Brown’s program of not focusing on investments and infrastructure. It’s really about priorities.”
For a few months—they seemed like years—the race for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts was completely disconnected from the economy. In April, the conservative Boston Herald scooped that Harvard University, where Warren taught law, once listed her as a “minority” faculty member. Reporters became amateur genealogists, seeking out records that could validate Warren’s claim to be a 1/32nd member of the Cherokee Nation. The Herald’s headline department cranked out classics like “Arrows May Fell Warren in Fall” and “ ‘Pow Wow’ Factor.” Republicans wanted the swing voter to see Warren as an entitled, elitist carpetbagger. This story should’ve done it.
But it didn’t. When the Cherokee story wound down, Warren remained tied in the polls with Brown. A Suffolk University survey found most voters believing Warren’s version of the story and even more voters unable to give a damn about it. Democrats picked Warren to give a prime-time speech at the national convention. Then came Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan. The unexpectedly silly Senate race is all of a sudden about stimulus spending and Medicare and taxes.
You could tell just by watching Scott Brown. On Aug.13, the incumbent’s only public event was a charity basketball game in Springfield for a mentoring program called A Path to Manhood. On the front of the $10 ticket: A photo of Brown spinning a basketball on his thumb as preteens gaze at his awesomeness.
On the court, it was even better for Brown. The other politicos on the charity teams swapped out frequently and struggled to get to the net. Rep. Richard Neal—a Democrat, like everyone not named Brown in the Massachusetts delegation—made an early run at the basket, threw a brick, and quickly found his way to the bench. “Basketball!” laughed the announcer when another politician stumbled over the ball. “It’s basketball!”
Brown stayed on the court for all but two minutes of the game. He was constantly in motion and got fouled four times—more than all of the other players combined. He missed one foul shot and let out a gut-deep “AAGGGNNH-AGGH!” Moments later, when he sank a three-pointer, he ran past the bleachers (and attending photographers), grinning widely and holding up three fingers.
As a photo-op, it was perfect. As a press event, it was tougher to control. Local reporters insisted on asking Brown about the Ryan choice, which put him in a spot, because he opposed Ryan’s budget when it got to the Senate. “I think the corporate tax rate needs to be cut, but I don't know if 25 percent is the number,” Brown told reporters. “While we don't agree [with Ryan] on everything, I certainly appreciate his efforts to bring budgetary issues to the forefront.”
Brown’s just-a-regular-dude appeal is one of his biggest assets. It sets off audible rage alarms whenever you mention it to a Democrat. On Tuesday, when Warren is asked whether Brown’s ultra-physical events put her at a disadvantage, she theorizes that for Brown, “the point is to be out and visible in a way where he doesn’t have to talk about the issues or take any questions.”State Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh, in an interview at his office, made sneering references to Brown’s image, accusing him of “hanging up the barn coat and putting on a nice tuxedo” when he got to Washington.
There’s a trauma behind the gripe. Democrats underestimated Brown in 2010. Attorney General Martha Coakley, groomed for higher office, sleepwalked through the election until she panicked and tried, too late, to get the state’s Democratic machines humming, after Brown had already worked the state in his photo-op friendly pickup truck.