Just three weeks before the election, Democrat Elizabeth Warren has taken a steady lead in polls over Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in her bid to win the most hotly-contested Senate race in the country.
Polls show Warren leading the incumbent by as many as six points, and she out-raised Brown by $4 million in the last fundraising quarter.
Boston-based Republican strategist Rob Gray said the poll numbers are a worry for Brown, particularly considering the strength of the Democratic ground-game and likely Democratic turnout in Massachusetts.
But there are signs that Warren’s lead will be difficult to overcome at this late stage of the race, as more and more voters dig in with their preferred candidate.
“The impression people have of both these candidate is starting to be pretty fixed,” said longtime Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh.
Brown always faced a difficult road to retain his seat given his party affiliation.
President Obama is expected to beat Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts by double digits, which forces Brown to convince thousands of voters to split their tickets.
To repeat his huge surprise victory in 2010, when he won Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat months after the party elder’s death, Brown has again highlighted his image as a truck-driving, beer-drinking everyman who is independent from his party.
The idea was to play off his likability — which polls suggested was his greatest strength with Massachusetts voters — while making voters dislike Warren.
But in recent weeks, Brown has stumbled with that effort.
Brown was criticized after an aggressive performance in the candidates’ first two debates. Perhaps the most memorable moment at either was when Brown turned to Warren and chastised her for speaking over him, saying “I’m not a student in your classroom.”
In their third debate, Brown was more passive, but Democrats believe the damage was done and that Brown hurt his image with voters with the tough attacks. "When Brown came off the way he did, it caught everybody by surprise. It was sort of breathtaking, and it then opened the door for people to question, because he was so different personally, could he be as different politically?” said Marsh.
Brown’s reputation as an independent as been boosted by a voting record where he has sometimes sided with Obama, and by his willingness to take on Republicans fiercely on their public statements.
Brown was among the first Republicans to rip Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin for his “legitimate rape” remarks, in which the conservative lawmaker said a woman’s body had ways to stop pregnancy after rape.
He also criticized Romney over his comments at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the nation’s voters see themselves as “victims” who are dependent on government.
But Democrats say Brown undermined his image as an independent by releasing fundraising pitches that asked voters for money to keep the Senate under GOP control.
Warren has made a point at every debate to frame this election in terms of a vote for a Republican majority. Though more than 50 percent of voters in the state are registered unaffiliated with any party, polls show Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly prefer Democratic control of the Senate.
Brown could be the deciding vote for the Republicans next term, a fact that retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) believes will turn Massachusetts voters off come Election Day.
“Scott Brown’s chances would be greater if there was no question over who would have control over the Senate,” he said.
Gray believes Brown’s message that he is an independent may be falling flat, and that he needs to find new ways to show his willingness to separate himself from the national GOP.
“Repetition is good in politics, but the lines are starting to get a little bit old,” he said. “I think he needs some new ways to demonstrate his independence from the Republican leadership in Washington.”
Brown’s campaign has focused less on attacks on Warren over the past week and more on boosting Brown’s profile. He’s launched two positive television spots, one featuring the candidate driving behind his iconic truck to visit constituents, and another with his wife, Gail Huff, defending his record on women’s issues.
Warren hopes to make that record a central snag in voters’ minds, hammering Brown on his votes on women’s issues during their last debate, a moment considered by many observers to be her best of the three debates. She also released a new ad last week focused on Brown’s votes against the Paycheck Fairness Act — legislation designed to ensure women and men are paid the same for comparable work— and for the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny contraception coverage on the basis of religious grounds.
Both Gray and Marsh agreed that the final debate could be pivotal for the candidates.
It comes just over a week in advance of the election, and if the candidates remain close in the polls that could be the opportunity for Warren to post a surge.
Or, the debate could also give Brown time to release a memorable line — like his 2010 remark that he was running for “the people’s seat,” not Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat — that could pull him to a second victory in the statewide race.