There are few political epithets in American politics more powerful than Massachusetts liberal. It declares that those who hail from the Bay State are an exotic breed of politician who have little in common with the values of the rest of America; a blue state standing apart from the sea of purple or red. And yet the actual politics of the state defy conventional wisdom and create greater shades of gray. It's in these areas that Scott Brown may well find the key to his re-election.
To be sure, Massachusetts politics tilts to the left. We were the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, the first to implement an individual mandate in health insurance, and a leader in progressive welfare policies. We also give Democratic candidates a very healthy margin of victory in presidential elections. And for many years we sent reliable liberals like Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy to Congress.
And yet we also defy the conventional wisdom in some key ways: our overall tax burden is lower than all the Northeastern states except for our anti-tax friends to the north, New Hampshire; we have the lowest divorce rate in the nation; the split between pro-choice and pro-life votes in the State Legislature is just about 50 percent, and, though overwhelming, the Democratic party is not uniformly liberal and a faction of it -- the so-called Reagan Democrats -- can provide an important voting block for conservative candidates.
Viewed from the outside, we might seem like an East Coast San Francisco. But for those who have paid attention closely to the nuances of the political culture from the inside, the state is much more a mixed bag and Scott Brown has paid close attention as he worked his way up the political ladder from Town Assessor to U.S. Senator.
Current polling puts this race in a statistical tie, ordinarily dangerous territory for an incumbent and challenger Elizabeth Warren's first-quarter fundraising haul of $6.9 million is nothing short of astonishing. But the numbers show a few areas of concern for Democratic leaders in the state. According to PPP, Brown has the support of "a fair share of Democratic voters, taking 17 percent of them to Warren's 72 percent, and he also wins independent voters by 12 points, 48-36." The difficulty for Brown is that he needs to win independent voters by an even greater percentage to overcome Warren's superiority with Democrats. And independent voters here lean Democratic. That 17 percent is not yet a cause for concern for Democratic leaders but it provides a start for the Republican senator.
Brown's campaign will focus on Reagan Democrats -- those conservative Democrats from urban, now suburban, areas of the state who gave Reagan two victories here and helped sustain the political careers of Republicans like former Gov. Paul Cellucci. Like Cellucci, Brown doesn't need to win certain urban areas but must hold Warren to a tight margin in cities like Brockton, Quincy, and Lowell and in suburban areas such as the so-called Cranberry Country, the southeastern region of the state home to our famed cranberry industry that is much more hospitable to Republican candidates.
How well is Brown doing on this score? There are few early hints.
First, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, the closest model in contemporary Massachusetts politics to a party boss, is bucking the trend among Democrats in the state and not rallying to the campaign of Elizabeth Warren. When asked if he'd vote for her, Menino answered, "When you vote it's a secret ballot." He refused to endorse Warren before the Massachusetts Democratic Convention and when she won an unprecedented 95.77 percent of the convention vote against her sole challenger, Menino still didn't fully commit to her candidacy. The next day the mayor was pictured with Scott Brown at the Dorchester Day Parade. The timing was coincidental but still symbolizes the fact that the Democratic coalition here is large and can be subject to fissures.
Menino can help tip a close statewide race by keeping his powder dry. In 1998, he kept another Democratic, gubernatorial nominee Scott Harshbarger, at arm's length and the Democrats lost by only 3 percent of the vote. A poll by the Boston Globe has only 51 percent of conservative or moderate Democrats favoring Brown's opponent. Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn came out and endorsed Brown for a second time and has appeared with Brown in campaign ads. Brown will spend as much time with these folks as possible.
Second, Brown has finessed the potentially divisive issue of access to contraception by framing the issue as one of religious freedom. National Republicans appeared to lose control of the issue due to Rush Limbaugh's tirade on a female law student.
But Brown was consistent in his framing of the issue and invoked liberal icon Ted Kennedy's call for a conscious exemption, over the protests of members of the late senator's family and former staffers. Not long after the issue became a national cause célèbre, Scott Brown was endorsed by the liberal Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, to come to the state to campaign for him and brushed aside any notion that Brown was anti-women in his politics. A recent poll by Western New England University showed that only 2 percent of Massachusetts voters listed abortion as the most important issue in the Senate race. None listed contraception. Seven percent listed health care.
Democrats will keep up the pressure on Brown on issues that can widen the gender gap that already exists. His recent vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2012 will be used by the Warren camp to continue to line up independent women voters to the Democratic column.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Brown to overcome is turnout. With the state's former governor heading the Republican ticket in the fall, it is possible that the GOP might keep the Democratic ticket to a tighter margin than is typical here. Bob Dole lost the state by more than 30 points in 1996, making a Republican pick up in that year's Senate race nearly impossible. Even if Romney keeps the state within 15 points, Brown will have to convince a substantial number of Obama voters to simultaneously cast a ballot for him.
It's been done before: Massachusetts voters turned to George McGovern by nine points in 1972 while reelecting Republican Senator Ed Brooke by nearly 30 points. Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts by just under 3 percent in 1984 when John Kerry to the Senate for the first time, defeating his opponent by 10 points.
But Scott Brown faces a much more popular opponent in Elizabeth Warren than either Brooke or Kerry faced. He also faces a Democratic Party that has worked to perfect a get out the vote mechanism over the past few elections cycles that should be the envy of party organizations around the country.
The GOP team here can't match their efforts and thus Brown will have to rely on his personal appeal and those nuanced shades of gray to carry him to victory.
Peter Ubertaccio is chair of the department of political science and director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. You can follow him at on Twitter @ProfessorU