The entry of Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard-professor-turned-consumer-advocate, into the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts has created a stir among Democratic activists and donors, but she faces a difficult challenge in unseating Republican Sen. Scott Brown. While she has never previously run for office, her high profile as a regulator and tough critic of the financial industry has progressives buzzing that she could retake the seat held for four decades by the late liberal lion Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Warren is a darling of the anti-corporate progressives who are disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s close ties to Wall Street. A law professor at Harvard, she served as the special advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was the first chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Most politicians claim they are dedicated to the middle class, but her record adds rare substance to this promise. As she greeted commuters at a Boston subway station to launch her campaign Wednesday, she said,
“There’s been a lot of very powerful interests who have tried to shut me down, squeeze me, push me sideways, and so far it just hasn’t worked. I’m willing to throw my body in front of a bus to try to stop bad ideas that are going to be harmful to the middle class.”
But now, in an already-crowded Democratic pool, Warren might have to appeal to those same powerful interests in order to compete with other Senate hopefuls. If she does make it through the primary, she has to square off with the popular Sen. Brown, who already has more than $10 million in his campaign account. Much of Brown’s campaign donations come from the financial sector — his top contributors include Goldman Sachs and the Boston-based financial company FMR Corp. If Warren accepted similar donations — although it is highly unlikely such interests would consider supporting her, given her record — she would be opening herself up to claims of hypocrisy. Instead, she will most likely rely on smaller contributions from progressive organizations, unions, and voters who are excited about her campaign.
“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.”
Given the amount of enthusiasm surrounding her candidacy, jilted progressives might be willing to give her the necessary money and support. People on the left are excited at the prospect of having a dedicated consumer advocate in Washington, hoping that she would stand up to the corporate interests that dominate much of policy-making. As John Nichols of The Nation writes,
It’s not just that a Warren candidacy could provide Democrats with a needed pick-up of a currently Republican-held seat — although that’s a big deal for the party, which faces a dismal electoral map in 2012. If the chief advocate for real banking reform and the development of a federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau runs and defeats U.S. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, she will instantly become an essential spokesperson for progressive values in national economic, regulatory, and fiscal policy debates.
The calculus extends even further with Warren, however. Her ability to grab the spotlight and use it to push the discourse to the left on economic issues that the media so frequently neglects makes the prospect of her candidacy and Senate service potentially transformative for movements and a party that will — no matter what the 2012 presidential election result — begin pondering sometime next year the challenge of identifying leaders of the post-Obama era.
There’s something to be said for this level of optimism and excitement surrounding a Democratic candidate, particularly at a time when liberals are facing a tough electoral climate. Warren could reinvigorate a disillusioned progressive movement; but is it possible to win an election in 2012 without appealing to the financial sector for hefty donations?
If Warren secures the Democratic nomination, the Senate race could turn into a battle between Wall Street and progressives. But at the end of the day, relying on a wholly grassroots fundraising scheme might not be enough against the wallets of the big banks.