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Inside Scoop: Can Elizabeth Warren Really Win?

It's Massachusetts' fickle independents who'll decide her high-stakes showdown with Scott Brown. Here's a look at what they think of her so far.

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The clip went viral, helping Warren raise almost $9 million as of the end of last year, roughly two-thirds from out-of-state donors. It also helped fuel the backlash against her from right-wingers, who revile her almost as much as they do Barack Obama.

If Warren were running in any number of progressive archipelagos—Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Austin, Madison, Berkeley—she would be queen. But she’s running in Massachusetts, which isn’t as true blue as you might imagine. Yes, registered Democrats (37 percent) outnumber Republicans (11 percent) more than three to one. But that leaves a large majority of independents. According to polls, the lead seesaws weekly between Warren and Brown, and among independents, Brown leads Warren by margins that range from 12 to 29 percentage points. Because he’s the incumbent, people are more likely to know who he is, while many voters haven’t heard of her yet.

Warren is doing her best to close that gap. In person, she strikes exactly the right human notes. Following her around, I heard the same comments over and over again:  She’s so warm and personable. Talking to her is just like talking to a trustworthy neighbor. She’s a mom, like me, who works hard to take care of her family. She’s just like in her commercials, very kind. She really listened. She cares about us.

Of course, Elizabeth Warren can’t shake every hand in the commonwealth. And even if voters come to like her, will they like her more than the very likable—and very savvy—Scott Brown?

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Like Warren, Brown comes to politics from the law—in his case, real estate law. Unlike Warren, he’s a veteran candidate. He served twelve years in the Massachusetts legislature and State Senate before he beat the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Martha Coakley, to take over Ted Kennedy’s open seat in the 2010 special election—and, in doing so, ended the Democrats’ supermajority in the US Senate.

Brown wields a powerful personal story that he uses to great political effect. He came from the most broken of broken families. His memoir, beautifully written and deeply moving, shows the worst kind of childhood under alcoholism: a drunken mother who had a series of impulsive marriages to abusive men; seventeen different homes in eighteen years; hunger, loneliness, violent stepfathers and sexual violation by others. But Brown was charming, athletic and threw himself into basketball as if it could save him—which it did, sending him to Tufts, a top-tier private university. He attached himself to mentors who fed him, believed in him, pushed him to work his hardest and gave him second chances when he screwed up. He saw that those who didn’t make the right choices in bad circumstances fell into poverty, misery and jail. He emerged with a real political philosophy: reward the hard workers and let the rest suffer their just deserts. And he has used the same skills that enabled his escape from those hard circumstances—warmth, good looks, street smarts, a ferocious work ethic and a fierce determination to disprove those who dismiss him—to succeed politically. He has never lost an election.

Massachusetts independents loved Ted Kennedy, who brought home the bacon, whose constituent services were unparalleled, who came from the same revered family as Jack and Bobby and who fought for the commonwealth’s regular folks—factory and office workers, fishermen, firemen. But these same independents also elected Republican governors for sixteen straight years, from William Weld in 1991 to Mitt Romney, who left office in 2007.

When Kennedy died, voters had a choice between Coakley, a woman in a state that had never elected a female senator, a progressive Democrat who had spent her adult life winning all the right offices, and Brown, a self-proclaimed independent who drove around the state in his barn jacket and pickup truck, emphasizing his manly ordinariness. They picked Brown.

 
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