Elizabeth Warren breaks state’s political glass ceiling
A group of people cheer Tuesday at Hotel Northampton as they learn that Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race. Purchase photo reprints »
Larry Hott, of Florence, Jackie Hayden, of Goshen, and Jaz Tupelo, of Northampton, front row from left, cheer the election results during a party for democrats Tuesday at Hotel Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Andrew Baseman and Jenny Reed, both of Northampton, chat during a party for democrats Tuesday at Hotel Northampton. Reed was a volunteer for Obama for America. Purchase photo reprints »
Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gives two thumbs up as she arrives to greet commuters and thank Massachusetts residents, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. Warren defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown. (AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye) Purchase photo reprints »
The political glass ceiling in Massachusetts was broken with Tuesday’s election of Elizabeth Warren as the state’s first female U.S. Senator.
But many of Warren’s supporters see her victory over Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown as more than just that. In their view, her victory is also that of a middle class champion, an unapologetic liberal and a first-time politician whose abilities on the stump and in debates grew as the campaign wore on.
“It’s long overdue for us to have a woman senator,” said state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst. “But this is not just any woman senator. This is Elizabeth Warren and she stands out from most candidates — male or female.”
Warren supporters said it was her work as a consumer advocate — not a women’s advocate — that excited them most about her campaign.
“I like that she has been such a strong advocate for economic justice and working families,” said Ellen Mintzer of Southampton.
“I think her work as a consumer advocate was appealing,” said Michael Kusek, of Northampton, during an election night party for local Democrats at the Hotel Northampton.
Elizabeth K. Markovits, an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke, said Warren entered the race with a reputation for fighting Wall Street after advocating for the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington D.C., and as a professor at Harvard Law School, where she specialized in bankruptcy law.
“For Elizabeth Warren, it is that strong left, liberal message more than anything” that appealed to Massachusetts voters, she said.
The fact that Massachusetts in recent times has long-serving senators helps explain why it has taken so long for a woman to hold the office, Markovits said.
“For Massachusetts to have its first female senator sounds like some sort of sea change,” she said. “I think what is interesting about Massachusetts is that because you had Ted Kennedy for so long, you didn’t have a whole lot of turnover.”
And U.S. Sen. John Kerry, now the state’s senior senator and a possible successor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, has been in office since 1985.
Still, supporters were excited to see Warren shatter the political glass ceiling in a state that has not elected a female governor. Jane Swift was appointed acting governor, a position she held from 2001 to 2003. And Evelyn Murphy, Shannon O’Brien and Kerry Healey all lost gubernatorial elections.
“We need more women leaders,” said Leigh Merriam, a Northampton resident, after Warren’s victory was announced Tuesday night. While he said he was principally attracted to Warren’s campaign by her response to the banking crisis, Merriam said the fact she is a woman played a role in his support for her candidacy.
Further, exit polling suggests that Warren’s stance on women’s issues played a part in her victory. While the economy and taxes ranked first and second among voter concerns, 61 percent of respondents in a UMass Amherst exit poll Tuesday listed equal pay as important to their vote while 51 percent said abortion played an important role in their decision.
Warren won 60 percent of women voters, compared to 40 percent for Brown, the poll found, and the two split evenly among male voters.
State Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, said women’s issues might have cost Brown the race — even though the senator is a pro-choice Republican.
“There were reckless comments from U.S. Senate candidates elsewhere in the country about abortion,” Knapik said, in reference to remarks made by Republicans Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Murdock in Indiana. “I think the Warren campaign did a good job of nationalizing the campaign.”
There is widespread agreement among Democratic and Republican political consultants that Warren was bolstered by a strong organization and a clear message in the campaign’s homestretch while Brown was hurt by his emphasis on negative campaigning.
“I think it was the biggest operation on the ground that Massachusetts has ever seen,” Chris Keohan, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said of Warren’s organization. “The money came in, the endorsements came in, but when it came down to knocking on doors and getting people out to vote, I don’t think Massachusetts has ever seen a get-out-the-vote operation like this one.”
Republican strategist Spencer Kimball, president of Kimball Political Consulting in Springfield, said Brown made a mistake when he signed a pledge with Warren to keep spending on television and newspaper advertising by third-party organizations out of the campaign.
“By not allowing outside groups to spend money, it forced him to have to attack. That brought down his favorability ratings,” Kimball said.
Both Knapik and Kimball said state Republicans need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to create a more effective field operations.
That is particularly true in western Massachusetts, which continues to vote Democratic by wide margins, Knapik said.
“I think we have conceded too much of the commonwealth’s territory by virtue of the fact that we don’t win there,” he said.
Yet with little party infrastructure and Republicans drubbed Tuesday, he conceded it will be difficult to make progress in the region.
Analysts on both sides also agreed that while Warren was boosted by increased voter turnout over the special election Brown won in January 2010, it was not the sole factor explaining Warren’s victory.
Keohan noted that Brown had a favorability rating 20 percentage points higher than Warren’s when the race started. That turned as Warren’s message — focusing on economic and women’s issues, as well as Democrats maintaining control of the Senate — came into focus during the last month of the race, Keohan said.
“I think in the past month and a half you could see her really hit her stride,” Keohan said. “I think it’s the debates, the change in the commercials and more people tuning in. People tuned in and realized they liked the message she stood for.”
Story put it this way: “Academics are not used to being short and concise. They are not used to speaking in sound bites. When she started out, her speeches were a little too long and a little too detailed.”
“You realize you can say a lot in very few words,” Story continued. “She got so good at that.”
In the national context, Warren’s victory was part of a historic night for female candidates. New Hampshire became the first state to boast an all-female congressional delegation with Tuesday’s election of Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, are New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators, and Democrat Maggie Hassan was elected the state’s governor Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Smith College graduate, became the first openly gay candidate to win election to the U.S. Senate with her victory over former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin.
The U.S. Senate will have 20 women in January.
Markovits, the Mount Holyoke professor, said she sees progress in these gains, but there is work ahead.
“Women are 51 percent of the population, 56 percent of voters and I’m so excited that women are 20 percent of the Senate,” Markovits said, adding that she would like to see increased female representation from both parties. “I hate that I am so excited about it. We have a long way to go.”