This time around, Warren was the candidate with outside support. She was considered an intellectual hero by Occupy Wall Street and became a national progressive sensation. The balancing act that served Brown so well throughout his political career finally failed him, as he struggled to hold the right and center together.
Brown also broke precedent by engaging in negative campaigning against Warren, a tactic he had mostly eschewed against Martha Coakley and his other past Democratic opponents. He attacked Warren’s liberalism, her debunked claims of Native American ancestry and her Harvard affiliation.
Two years ago, Brown was seen as above the fray while Coakley attacked him relentlessly. He had always done well by talking about local sports, Boston cultural pride and the contributions of military veterans, rather than hard ideological politics.
Joe Malone, a Republican who served two terms as Massachusetts state treasurer during the 1990s, had a similar appeal. He did regular radio broadcasts where he was as likely to talk about Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics as the state budget or what was going on in the treasurer’s office. He was renowned for being a nice guy.
When Malone ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1998, taking on the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, he went sharply negative. He compared his GOP primary opponent to Michael Dukakis. He ran ads chastising budget-busting liberalism. He retained Arthur Finkelstein, a hard-hitting New York Republican consultant who had worked for Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.
Malone lost badly and his political career never recovered.
Brown’s situation is not as dire, as he remains personally popular. But Brown may have hurt his brand identity in this particular race. He had a difficult time distancing himself from the Republican congressional leadership while simultaneously retaining his base. Hitting Warren on her own partisanship did not seem to shore him up with independents, based on the trends in the polls.
Brown is only 53 and the Massachusetts Republican bench isn’t very deep. The state GOP has been unusually competitive in a number of races while still falling short, including promising congressional candidacies by Sean Bielat in 2010 and Richard Tisei this year. Brown could run for governor in 2014. If John Kerry becomes secretary of state in a second Obama administration, he could run again for Senate.
But as former Gov. William Weld learned when he challenged Kerry in 1996, there is a limit to what personal popularity can accomplish in the face of a strong Massachusetts Democratic tide.
“Defeat is only temporary,” Brown said in his concession speech. Time will tell.
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