Elizabeth Warren-Scott Brown Race Will Test Massachusetts on Electing Women

Massachusetts may revel in its liberal reputation, but it has struggled to elect women to statewide office.

Josh Reynolds / AP

Massachusetts, home of the Kennedy dynasty, the first state to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the only one to vote for George McGovern for president in 1972, revels in its über-liberal reputation. And while Democrats hold most of the elected offices that matter, the paradox is that voters here don’t seem comfortable electing women to statewide office.

Massachusetts has never elected a woman to be a U.S. senator or governor, unlike North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas—and Arizona, which has elected women from both parties as governor. All are considered far more conservative than the Bay State. Closer to home, New Hampshire and Maine both have two women senators—only one of whom is a Democrat. Vermont and Connecticut have had female governors, too, including Ella Grasso, who in 1974 was elected governor of Connecticut and became the first woman in the country to serve as a governor who did not succeed her husband.

The expected 2012 showdown between Republican Sen. Scott Brown—who last year unexpectedly seized the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for nearly a half century—and consumer advocate and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren will test anew the state’s track record on women politicians.

Massachusetts has long considered politics its favorite pastime after the Red Sox. The three previous speakers of the state House, all men, have been indicted, with one pleading guilty to tax evasion and another convicted on seven federal corruption charges. This is the big league, and politics is a blood sport here, a tradition going back hundreds of years. First the Brahmins held on tightly to power, and then the Irish Catholics fought their way in.

The state has launched national leaders from President John F. Kennedy to U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and presidential candidates Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and now Mitt Romney—who, if he is the GOP nominee, probably won’t carry the state he governed only five years ago.

“Men want it bad in Massachusetts. They want to be in power. Getting elected to statewide office here is a big launching pad for national politics. The men don’t want to give that up. Men see the opportunities and are damned if they’re going to let women in,” says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

In its entire history, only four women have represented Massachusetts in Congress. The first was Edith Nourse Rogers, a progressive Republican who succeeded her husband and served from 1925 to 1960, becoming the nation’s longest-serving congresswoman, a record that still stands. Republican Margaret Heckler served in the U.S. House from 1967 to 1983, after which there was a gap of almost a quarter century until Niki Tsongas became the next woman elected in 2007. She represents the state’s Fifth District, the same seat held by Rogers, and by Tsongas’s late husband, Paul, before his election to the Senate, his run for the presidency in 1992, and his death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1997.

“We can’t win if we don’t run,” Tsongas says of women candidates. She points out that on the farm-team level the state is doing pretty well. Women have been elected to the state legislature from 27 of the 29 towns in her district in the past two legislative cycles, she says.

The current Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, did not carry the Fifth District, which includes the working-class former mill cities of Lawrence and Lowell. But Brown, who won a special election in 2010 to fill Kennedy’s Senate seat, did. Tsongas has already endorsed Warren, Brown’s likely Democratic challenger in 2012.

Over the past 50 years, the Democratic candidate for president has nearly always won Massachusetts, the only exceptions being when Ronald Reagan carried the state twice. The same people who voted for Reagan—white, working-class men labeled Reagan Democrats—also elected Brown. Hillary Clinton decisively defeated Barack Obama in the Democratic primary here in 2008, but she did it not only with the help of women but by being a more palatable candidate to Reagan Democrats.

You can’t win statewide in Massachusetts without their votes, along with the support of independents, who represent 52 percent of all registered voters here, compared with 36 percent who are Democrats and a paltry 11 percent who are registered Republicans. Massachusetts election law allows independents to participate in primary elections, making them even more important. Brown, who defeated Democrat Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, depicted himself during the 2010 campaign as a guy’s guy, wearing a canvas barn coat and driving his pickup truck around the state. According to a privately conducted exit poll, he won male votes in that election by a margin of 13 points, whereas Coakley won women’s votes by only 3 points. If you ask five people here why Coakley lost, you’ll get five different answers: she and the Democrats took the race for granted; she ran a bad and somewhat arrogant campaign; Brown ran a great one; she made some stupid remarks; and she came off as “chilly.” But there is also no doubt that Brown played the guy card against her with a direct appeal to the Reagan Democrats, and it looks as if he plans to do the same thing this time around.

The Democratic primary, in which Warren must defeat four opponents before she can take on Brown in November 2012, isn’t until next September. But she is presumed the likely challenger, and there has already been a dust-up between Brown and Warren that has raised issues of sexism, class, elitism, and humor.

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Brown, when he was in law school at Boston College, posed nude in Cosmopolitan after being named “America’s Sexiest Man” by the magazine. He used the money he earned from that photo shoot for school expenses and the exposure, pardon the pun, to launch a modeling career. Recently, at the first Democratic debate, a questioner made reference to this and asked Warren how she paid for college, to which she quipped, “I didn’t take my clothes off.”

Two days later, appearing on a local talk-radio show, Brown, responding to a question about Warren’s comment, retorted, “Thank God” (pronounced "gawd" in Massachusetts speak), expressing apparent relief that Warren didn’t strip for the camera. After a furor erupted over his comments, Brown said, “I was merely responding to a wisecrack she made,” and added, “You have to have a sense of humor.”

Warren didn’t overreact. “I’ll survive a few jabs from Scott Brown over my appearance,” she responded. But the critique of Warren’s physical appearance struck a nerve with some women supporters. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Brown “clueless” on national television and said his remark showed “a disrespect for women.”

The tempest in a nude teapot would never have resonated if there weren’t already so much sensitivity about the way women candidates are treated by the media and their opponents. Shannon O’Brien served in the state legislature before being elected state treasurer in 1998, the first woman to win statewide office here on her own. Four years later she defeated a field of primary contenders, including political economist and national pundit Robert Reich, to become the Democratic candidate for governor. She was defeated by Mitt Romney.

“It’s very easy to make fun of women for their appearance … Women are held to a different standard. I was shocked to find out that appearance really counts a lot more for women than it does for men,” O’Brien says.

Being a woman candidate can be both a “disadvantage and a distinguishing factor,” she says. “The bar is set higher, there are more opportunities for error, and when you do make a mistake it has a more significant impact on your fortunes as a candidate.”

O’Brien was vastly outspent by Romney, who put millions of dollars of his own money into the race, and says it is much harder for women candidates to raise money.

So far, Warren is doing pretty well. Despite just announcing her candidacy a month ago, she has already raised $3 million, compared with Brown’s $10.5 million in the bank.

Early polls portend a close race. In hypothetical matchups, a University of Massachusetts at Lowell/Boston Herald poll of registered voters showed Brown ahead of Warren 41 percent to 38 percent, while Warren led by 2 points in a Public Policy Polling survey.

O’Brien applauds Warren’s low-key response to the Brown jab. As a woman candidate, “you can’t look whiny,” O’Brien says.

In this case, it seems there’s been some gender-role reversal about appearance and who’s doing the whining. It is Brown who has been celebrated for his good looks and tried to play the victim card.

“I didn’t go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks. And I did whatever I had to do to pay for school,” he said. But Warren didn’t go to Harvard either. She may work there now, but she went to the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School, and took out loans to do it. Brown attended the arguably more elite private schools of Tufts and Boston College Law School.

Numerous studies have shown that voters do set a higher bar for women candidates and that there is a greater emphasis on their appearance and “likability.” Women candidates and officeholders can also expect very personal comments and criticism that men usually never face, although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has certainly withstood a barrage of comments, jokes, and even a Washington Post column about his weight.

Amy Markham is an independent voter from Norton, Mass., who thinks Brown’s remark was “a low blow … Some people might have thought it was cute, but I thought it was kind of inappropriate. It’s like going back to Hillary and her pantsuits. Why do we have to have any conversations about that at all?”

Bob Nerz, an independent in North Attleborough, lives near the Rhode Island border in the district Brown represented when he was in the state legislature. Nerz says he voted for Brown for Senate and tends to vote more often for Republicans because “in Massachusetts there’s no reason to get out of bed if you want the Democrats to win.” He definitely thinks Brown appeals to swing, blue-collar voters.

“He projects the image of a guy you’d like to have a beer with,” adds Joe Stanganelli, a Democratic lawyer from Cohasset.

Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says Massachusetts is not as liberal as many people think: “It’s been very socially conservative when it comes to cultural norms.” Budson says women who run for office continually talk about media and voter emphasis on “hair, hemlines, and husbands.”

“A woman candidate needs to be ever mindful of her message and to get it out through the static of that coverage … There is a much more narrow window of what is socially acceptable for women politicians,” she says.

Elizabeth Feld is a moderate Republican who moved to Massachusetts from New York a few years ago and sees many differences between the two states. “They are culturally very conservative here," she says. "They’re reluctant to embrace new ideas and new things. The way they dress is very old school. The traditions run deep.”

But Feld, who worked on several campaigns back in New York, says it’s more difficult for women to win office no matter where they live. “The kingmakers are still the men.”