Warren’s criticism of Wall Street poses fundraising dilemma for a Senate run

Elizabeth Warren’s combative history with Wall Street could create a fundraising dilemma for her burgeoning Senate campaign. 

Her ardent grassroots following on the left — forged during stints as TARP watchdog and as mastermind of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — would likely make her a formidable Senate candidate in Massachusetts.

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But her reputation as sheriff to Wall Street could also be a liability against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a popular Republican who has been stockpiling campaign cash in anticipation of a tight 2012 race.

If Warren runs, she will have to decide whether to court high-rolling donors in the financial services community — an awkward choice both personally and politically, given her carefully crafted image as antagonist to big finance.

"I think it's pretty clear she's going to run the classic, grassroots campaign here in Massachusetts," said Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. "That means she's going to rely on folks here to give low-dollar donations here a number of times."

But without the support of heavy-hitting donors in Massachusetts, many of whom work at hedge funds and other financial firms, Warren might find it difficult to keep up with Brown’s fundraising juggernaut.

Dubbed “Wall Street’s Favorite Congressman” in a Forbes article last year, Brown reported having more than $9.6 million in the bank at the end of June. A good portion of that money came from the financial-services sector, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Employees of the Boston-based Fidelity Investments are the single biggest group of donors to Brown’s campaign committee, contributing more than $85,000 since 2007, according to the watchdog’s data. Employees at Goldman Sachs, Bank of New York Mellon, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are also top donors.

"It looks like it will be a crowded race on the Democratic side. I can’t predict who will be the nominee," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top political adviser to Brown. "I can predict it will be a long, drawn-out and expensive primary. In the meantime, Scott Brown is going to keep his focus on jobs and turning around the economy."

Warren’s record as critic of Wall Street will almost certainly be one of her calling cards should she choose to run. In a blog post about Warren on Friday, liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman previewed a possible campaign theme with the headline: "Finally, someone to run against Wall Street."

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, is reportedly among the Democrats urging Warren to jump in the race. Schumer has long been known for his fundraising prowess and has extensive ties to donors in the financial world.

But Warren's populist persona might make it difficult for her to turn around and mine the Bay State's financial community for support.

And should she choose to accept campaign contributions from financial executives, it could open her up to charges of hypocrisy from Republicans.

Marsh suggested that Warren's popularity with liberal groups around the country would be sufficient in funding her Senate bid.

"I don't think that money's going to be an issue for her," she said. "This is one seat they should win back if she's a good candidate."

An unofficial spokesman for Warren said she isn’t focused on fundraising at the moment.

"Elizabeth's main focus is traveling around Massachusetts, meeting people in their kitchens and living rooms, listening to their thoughts and discussing the issues important to them — not fundraising," said Kyle Sullivan, her unofficial spokesman.

Liberal groups, however, aren’t waiting for an official announcement of Warren’s candidacy.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a liberal activist organization, boasted this week that it has already raised $100,000 on Warren's behalf. And EMILY's List, the Democratic super-PAC that works to support female candidates who back abortion rights, expressed enthusiasm for her potential candidacy.

"The EMILY's List community has been telling me loud and clear that they want Elizabeth Warren in the race to beat Scott Brown," said the group's president, Stephanie Schriock. "Elizabeth is strong, smart and a dedicated fighter for working Americans. We'd love to see her take her talents to the U.S. Senate."

Whether that grassroots enthusiasm will be enough to keep pace with Brown is an open question.

Republicans think her support from liberal groups and labor unions will help Brown pigeonhole Warren — a Harvard professor with roots in liberal Cambridge — as an out-of-touch elitist.

"People in Massachusetts appreciate the fact that Scott is a regular guy. He’s hardworking and looks at each issue on the merits," Fehrnstrom said. "He’s not an ideological flamethrower; he’s a bipartisan problem-solver."

Warren also faces the issue of a Democratic primary in which a number of candidates have raised sizable sums already and show no interest in leaving the race. Alan Khazei, the founder of the group City Year, had raised almost $940,000 as of the end of June, and Newton Mayor Setti Warren (D) had raised almost $125,000 by the end of the same period.

And Warren still has yet to decide whether she’ll officially enter the race. She's still scheduled to teach a class at Harvard Law School this fall.