Massachusetts Senate race will be first major test for Occupy protests

The Occupy Wall Street movement is facing its first major political trial in Massachusetts, where it has become a litmus test in the Senate race.

As the social movement has expanded from a September demonstration in New York City to a protest movement with roots in cities across the United States and abroad, Democratic politicians have greeted Occupy Wall Street with cautious admiration at best and trepidation at worst.

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In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren — the leading Democratic candidate vying to unseat Sen. Scott Brown (R) — has built her entire political persona around the tough-on-corporate-America themes embodied by Occupy Wall Street.

But with Republicans already piling on, Warren’s campaign is forced to make a decision with incomplete information about whether affiliating with the movement will be a net positive or negative.

“Clearly, the Democrats hope this is their base bubbling,” said Lou DiNatale, a Democratic political analyst in Massachusetts. “You want to get there soon enough to be part of the movement, but not too soon so that you get any of the blowback.”

Many Democrats see an opportunity to co-opt its grassroots energy, much the way the Republican Party has done with the Tea Party movement. Yet scattered incidents of arrests and riotous behavior have left most politicians stopping short of endorsing it until a crucial question is answered:

Will Occupy Wall Street become, like the Tea Party, a potent force advocating one view of the proper role of government? Or will it be written off as a herd of misguided anarchists, and join other failed social movements in the ash heap of history?

For Warren, the movement is an ideological match made in heaven. Warren established her brand in Washington as Democrats’ top watchdog for Wall Street, chairing the congressional panel that oversaw the bank bailout and later creating a new regulatory agency to hold the financial sector accountable to the middle class.

“I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do; I support what they do,” Warren said of Occupy Wall Street in an interview Tuesday with The Daily Beast.

Republicans pounced on the opportunity to tie Warren to a movement that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called “growing mobs” — a comment he later backtracked from — and one that other GOP leaders have openly condemned.

The Massachusetts Republican Party on Wednesday debuted a daily “Occupy Wall Street Incident Report” to document misdeeds attributed to the protesters.

“Given that Professor Warren has taken credit for starting a far-left movement, it’s all the more important for voters to remain up to date with the daily antics and activities of those she has claimed to have inspired,” said Nate Little, the state GOP’s executive director. “We believe this incident report will be a valuable resource for Massachusetts residents who are interested in how Professor Warren’s acolytes are interpreting her militant teachings.”

Brown’s campaign also circulated remarks by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.), who said during a radio interview that he didn’t think there was any one source behind Occupy Wall Street.

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee pointed to reports that Warren had accepted a $1,000 donation from a lobbyist whose firm had worked for General Electric. Warren speaks frequently about how Washington is rigged in favor of lobbyists, and has decried GE for paying no corporate taxes.

But on the left, the divergent approaches to how warmly Occupy Wall Street should be embraced reveal lingering uncertainty about whether the movement will end up a boon to or a burden on Democrats by November of next year.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal political action committee that has endorsed Warren and is helping fund her campaign, on Wednesday delivered more than 35,000 petitions supporting Occupy Wall Street to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“We stand with the 99 percent,” the petitions states, a reference to the movement’s slogan. “We need an economy that works for all of us, not just the richest 1 percent.”

But Warren’s campaign appeared to walk back the comments she made a day earlier, saying that while Warren understands the anger and why activists have taken to the streets, she believes no one is exempt from the law.

“Elizabeth was making the point that she has been protesting Wall Street’s practices and policies for years — and working to change them,” said campaign spokesman Kyle Sullivan. “Wall Street’s tricks brought our economy to the edge of collapse, and there hasn’t been any real accountability.”

Warren jumped to the top of the Democratic field when she entered the Senate race on Sept. 13, consolidating much of the support that had been divided among the other Democratic candidates.

Three of her challengers have since dropped out, citing no path to victory with Warren in the race. Newton Patch reported that one of the two, Newton Mayor Setti Warren, announced plans on Tuesday to endorse Warren.