The Massachusetts Senate Election: A Foreign Race

There is a very unnatural event occurring in Massachusetts today. It is something that seems almost foreign (dare call it European) to our recent American politics. This unnatural phenomenon is the Massachusetts Senate race. The race is one of the most closely followed national races, partly because of the history of the contested seat and partially because of the politics of the candidates.

The Senate seat in question was held by Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years. During Kennedy’s tenure, he fought for economic and social justice. He was one of the biggest advocates of LGBT rights and famously argued against Reagan’s attempt to nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He believed health care should be universal and opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He was a progressive, liberal Democrat. But, at the same time, he knew how to work across the aisle, with other Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. Kennedy was, according to McCain, “the single most effective member of the Senate if you want to get results.” At the same time, he was the liberal lion of the Senate. When he died, the Senate lost this liberal lion. So, when liberal Republican Scott Brown defeated Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010, many liberals and progressives were heartbroken that their liberal lion’s seat was in the hands of a Republican.

I was not happy when Brown took Kennedy’s seat. He gave the Republicans a filibuster-sustaining minority of 41. However, he has distanced himself from Tea Partiers, and even from the extreme conservatism of the Romney-Ryan ticket. According to analyses by the Congressional Quarterly, he only votes with his party 54% of the time. Brown was the first Republican to call on Rep. Todd Akin (R—MO) to give up his Senate race because of his controversial comments about legitimate rape. He is a very moderate Republican, in many ways similar to the recently defeated Richard Lugar (R—Ind.) and recently deceased Arlen Specter (Pa.)

The problem in the Senate is that moderate Republicans are becoming harder and harder to find. In some cases, they are defeated by Tea Party conservatives (see Richard Lugar), or choose to switch parties (see Arlen Specter), or just change their rhetoric entirely to fit the views of their party (see Mitt Romney). Liberal republicans should play a crucial role in the Senate. They bridge the ideological divide between extreme conservatives and Tea Parties and the Democrats. Yet, they are an endangered breed of Republicans. They are being hunted by the extreme right. An article in the New York Times about the rightward shift of the Republican Party (from the 1980 platform at the dawn of the Reagan revolution) to the 2012 Republican platform details this. The 2012 platform supports English as the nation’s official language, makes no exceptions for abortion, supports the public display of the Ten Commandments and calls for vast decreases in the scope and size of the federal government. Scott Brown does not believe in much of the party platform. He also wants to distance himself from Romney. He is, in many ways, a foreign agent to his party.

Running against him is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor and the mastermind of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). She is willing to take on Wall Street directly, while most other Democrats (including Obama) give in to it. She speaks the language of income inequality and argues for the rich paying more taxes because they “did not get rich on their own.” A November 2011 Times article profiling her said that “what sets her apart is her ability to tell a coherent, populist story in a way that other members of her party are either unwilling or unable to do so.” These days, when the Obama Administration and mainstream Democrats have a cozy relationship with Wall Street, a voice like Warren’s is refreshing for many liberals and leftists. Obama’s economic camp bent to Wall Street (and the Republican House) when it did not nominate Warren as the CFPB’s permanent director. Financial institutions were critical of Warren because of her aggressiveness in pursuing regulation. So, instead of nominating Warren, who many consumer advocacy and liberal groups backed, he nominated Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. At a time when income inequality his high and the Senate lacks populist leaders like Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone, having someone like Warren would be good.

Here we have a race here of two outliers — a moderate Republican and a populist, liberal Democrat. We have an opportunity to vote in an election between two relatively reasonable candidates running for a seat held by the great Ted Kennedy. These candidates are foreign to their parties. Their race is the exception to the growing conservatism among both Republicans and Democrats. It is politically extremely significant. Do we elect a Republican of the ilk of Richard Lugar, who could help bridge the divide between the conservative Republican base and the Democrats? Or do we elect a populist Democrat who will do more to empower the poor and middle class against Wall Street?

Polls from last week show the race to be a dead heat, but Warren has a slight advantage. We know who will win the presidential race in Massachusetts, but we do not know who will win in the Senate race — Warren or Brown. You may not have the chance in the near future to vote in an election between two candidates like them, because moderate Republicans and liberal, populist Democrats are becoming extinct. Voting in this race, unlike the presidential race (if you are registered in Massachusetts), actually matters. Go exercise your civic duty on November 6.