An Election to Anticipate

Tired of cookie-cutter political contests between very similar candidates? Then you’re going to like the upcoming race for one of the Senate seats in the late Ted Kennedy’s haunting grounds. Elizabeth Warren, best known for creating and fighting for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is hoping to challenge Republican incumbent Scott Brown. They’re both qualified, but they couldn’t be more different — personally or politically.

Brown, a former member of the Massachusetts state legislature, won a 2010 special election to complete the remaining term of the Senator Edward Kennedy. He is well-known for having been named “America’s Sexiest Man” by Cosmopolitan magazine, this distinction coming in 1982, when he was 22-year-old law student at Boston College. Brown spent many years in the Massachusetts legislature, and before that was the New England equivalent of a town councilman. He is well-qualified to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. Brown is conservative on most issues, calling himself a “Reagan Republican.”

Warren, a former Obama administration official, has declared for the Democratic nomination and is the favorite. She has been a law professor at Harvard and at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of a highly regarded book about middle-class living standards, The Two Income Trap. Warren is also well-qualified to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. She is left-wing on most major issues, to the left perhaps even of much bright-blue Massachusetts.

In recent decades, U.S. Senate races have tended to produce similar candidates with similar platforms. Rare is the race that pits two qualified contenders with dramatically different worldviews. The 1994 Pennsylvania Senate race between Harris Wofford and Rick Santorum comes to mind (strong left-wing versus strong right-wing positions); as does the 1992 New York race between Robert Abrams and Alfonse D’Amato (insider versus man-in-the-street); or the 2006 Maryland race between Ben Cardin and Michael Steele (bland-to-the-point-of-invisible career pol versus loose-cannon movement conservative). But many recent Senate contests have offered a selection between me-too candidates.

That won’t be the case if Brown faces Warren.

When Brown became the first Republican in a generation to win a Senate seat from Massachusetts, pundits labored to interpret this as a repudiation of Barack Obama. More important was that Brown was the better candidate in the 2010 race. He squared off against a Democratic loyalist named Martha Coakley who, rightly or wrongly, could not shed the perception of being a party-controlled hack. Brown came across as self-assured and unafraid to advance views that are unpopular in his state (opposition to gay marriage, for example).

Though Brown has moderated some of his positions in hopes of continuing his appeal to a commonwealth that’s just 11 percent registered Republican, there is no reason a GOP candidate cannot win again in Massachusetts. Massachusetts voters have a Yankee independence streak, choosing Republican governors in 1990, 1998 and 2002. The 2002 Republican winner was Mitt Romney, who appealed to New England tradition as a competent conservative willing to speak his mind. Brown offers the same attributes.

For a state that admires those who speak their minds, Warren is eminently qualified to hold office. Beginning about a decade ago, Warren forcefully warned that too much wealth is being shifted from average people to Wall Street and the gated-community cohort. Warren’s 2003 book (mentioned above) cautioned that inflated-adjusted household incomes were declining — this was a minority view during that boom period, but turned out to be right. She also warned that a liars-loans housing bubble was in progress. The 2008 banking meltdown might have been headed off if Warren’s warnings had been heeded.

As an Obama official, Warren proved a polarizing figure, so much so that the president did not nominate her to be the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she championed. Considering Massachusetts is in better economic shape than much of the nation, her populist rhetoric may not match the state’s demographics. But with Warren, what you see is what you get. The fact that she says exactly what she thinks regardless of the political cost may prove appealing to Massachusetts voters.

Warren is very smart, and thinks on her feet. For those who are tired of politicians who stumble on softball questions, or are addicted to the teleprompter, Warren will be a breath of fresh air.

A Brown-Warren race, if it happens, won’t kick off till next year. But if you’re like me, you’re already sick of 2011 politics. The prospect of two skillful candidates with dramatically different views going at each other in one of the country’s most important states has a can’t-wait allure.

[Cross-posted atReuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.