Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren: ‘Nobody Thought’ a Democrat Could Win My 2012 Massachusetts Senate Race

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during a town hall event in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. January 5, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)
Struggling to reclaim momentum, the progressive presidential candidate makes a bizarre claim in Iowa.

Manchester, Iowa — Each Democratic presidential candidate has a different argument for why he or she is the candidate most likely to beat President Trump in November. Amy Klobuchar points to her record winning over Republican voters in Minnesota. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each claim to have the right stuff to win over working-class voters in the midwestern states that decided the 2016 election. Elizabeth Warren, well . . .

While campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, Warren told voters a tale of how she won the 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts when “nobody thought” a Democrat could. Noting that Republican incumbent Scott Brown had a 65 percent approval rating and $10 million saved in his campaign coffers, Warren told voters at a Saturday town-hall event here in Manchester: “Nobody thought that anyone could beat him, and especially because he had just beaten a woman in a special election less than two years earlier.” She added that unnamed Democrats who encouraged her to run told her, “You will totally lose, but you should go ahead and get out there and do it.”

“All I can say is, Democrats: Get a better sales pitch,” Warren added. “I started out, I was down 17 points. I ended up beating him by seven-and-a-half points.”

Of course, it’s not true that “nobody thought” a Democrat could knock Brown from his perch in the bluest of blue states that cycle. In fact, when Warren launched her campaign in August 2011, contemporary news reports noted that “handicappers call a Brown–Warren race a tossup.”

It is true that some election-watchers gave Brown a slight edge. Larry Sabato, for example, rated the race as “leans Republican” at the time Warren announced her candidacy (though he had changed it to a “toss-up” by the end of 2011). It’s also true that Warren faced a real challenge in the race — Brown was popular, and had made a national name for himself in taking the seat to begin with. But Warren’s claim that “nobody thought” a Democrat could beat him in Massachusetts — a state that Barack Obama carried by 26 points in 2008, a state that had not elected a Republican senator since 1972 before Brown’s stunning 2010 victory — doesn’t withstand even the slightest scrutiny.

For one thing, Brown had won by five points against a weak Democratic candidate at a time when the unemployment rate was still very high and Republicans were extremely energized by Obamacare. He wasn’t invulnerable. For another, in the years since, Warren hasn’t proved to be unusually popular for a Massachusetts Democrat. Running against a weak, little-known Republican during the 2018 Democratic wave, she performed a few points worse than Hillary Clinton had in taking the state two years earlier. Last year, the liberal website Vox even saw fit to ask: “Why isn’t Elizabeth Warren more popular in Massachusetts?

“The fact that Warren underperformed Hillary Clinton in 228 of Massachusetts’s 351 towns, and did so in a blue-wave year, speaks to her weakness with working-class white voters on the ballot,” Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman told Vox. “Many parts of Massachusetts are culturally more similar to Wisconsin or Michigan than they are to Cambridge or Boston or Amherst. And that has to be a serious concern for next November, should it get to that.”

Though Warren has faded somewhat in the Democratic presidential primary, she remains very much in the hunt. A YouGov/CBS poll of Iowa voters that was released on Sunday showed Biden, Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg tied at exactly 23 percent each, with Warren in striking distance at 16 percent. But as she struggles to reclaim the momentum she had earlier in the race, electability remains an issue at the top of Democratic voters’ minds. Grossly overstating the challenge she faced from Brown in 2012 — and hence her record of electoral achievement — is not likely a good way to help a candidate who has already been widely mocked for bending the truth to the point of breaking it in the past.


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