by Susan Davis, USA TODAY
BOSTON - Surrounded by firefighters supporting her campaign, Elizabeth Warren stood on a street corner in South Boston and hit at Republican Sen. Scott Brown where it hurts. His pickup truck.
"It's not about what truck you drive," the Democratic candidate said, reiterating a popular sound bite dismissing Brown's storied truck. The vehicle has featured prominently in Brown's two Senate campaigns as a symbol of his ability to relate to the state's working-class voters who helped elect him. "I'm in this race because I believe in working families," she said.
Brown lobbed his own offensive at Warren a day earlier outside of Boston's South Station, casting her as a "hired gun" for corporate interests, following media reports about her previous legal work in the 1990s, when she assisted a steel company in a fight over making payments into a health care fund for retired coal miners. "That's an issue of honesty and character," Brown said, trying to undermine Warren's image as a consumer advocate.
The brawling, personal nature of the Massachusetts race has intensified in the closing weeks of a campaign that could decide control of the Senate. Warren and Brown are competing intensely for working-class voters in very blue Massachusetts who helped Brown win a surprise 2010 special election to replace the late Democratic icon, Ted Kennedy. Now, Warren needs them back if she is to win next month.
"Certainly we can relate more to Scott with the pickup truck and the jeans and the jacket and the beer at the Erie Pub, but this isn't about that," said Bob McCarthy, 67, a retired captain from Watertown Fire Department who supports Warren. "This isn't about who's going to be your best friend, this is about who's going to be supporting you down in D.C."
Democrats, who control the chamber 53-47, initially faced tough odds for maintaining control because they are defending 23 of the 33 seats up for re-election. But a combination of competitive candidates, presidential politics and Republican missteps is giving the party a narrow edge in the closing weeks of the races.
Brown has proven to be a resilient GOP candidate in a reliably Democratic state, but Warren has methodically eroded his double-digit advantage and is now tied or beating him in opinion polls. The race remains too close to be predictive, but state observers and national strategists put a thumb on the scale for Warren because of the difficulty Brown faces in having enough cross-ballot appeal to blunt President Obama's coattail effect. Obama carried the state by 26 points in 2008 and current polls give him a similar double-digit advantage against Mitt Romney.
"I'm worried for him with it being tied or her slightly ahead going into October in a presidential year. The numbers are just really tough," said Rob Gray, a veteran Massachusetts GOP strategist who is not affiliated with the Brown campaign.
In a signal of what's to come in the home stretch, Brown's campaign recently launched its first negative ad, highlighting a controversy over Warren describing herself as Native American on employment forms during her academic career at Harvard University. Warren responded in an ad of her own where she maintains her family has Native American ancestry. "As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage," Warren says in the ad, "Let me be clear. I never asked for or never got any benefit because of my heritage."
The Obama effect
Like Warren in Massachusetts, Democrats in Virginia and Wisconsin are narrowly breaking away from Republicans in recent polls, aided by a positive Obama effect in the three states.
In Virginia, former governor Tim Kaine has led former GOP senator George Allen in every poll taken since mid-September by one to eight points. Virginia is a presidential battleground where Obama had been leading Romney until the first presidential debate. Romney has since tightened the race, but Kaine has maintained his advantage.
While Republicans had hoped the addition of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket would make his home state more competitive, Obama maintains an advantage there, where Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin has taken the lead over former governor Tommy Thompson, who was bruised in a combative GOP primary.
Republicans, who are trying to hold onto their seat in Massachusetts, see Virginia and Wisconsin as pickup opportunities because both seats are held by Democrats. If all three are in Democratic hands in November, the chances wither for a Republican takeover.
Democrats have also been able to make surprisingly competitive bids in North Dakota and Indiana. In North Dakota, former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp is within single digits of GOP Rep. Rick Berg in a state that has been largely inoculated by the economic downturn and unemployment is just 3%. "Really no one gave us a chance in North Dakota until Heidi got in that race," said Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Senate Democrats' campaign operation. "It seems to be really resistant to what's happening in the presidential election."
Polls show Obama far behind in North Dakota. Indiana looks like a red state this year, but Democrats are hoping conservative Richard Mourdock, who ousted six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana's GOP primary in May, will prove too far right for the state. Missteps by Mourdock and an aggressive ad strategy by Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly has upgraded this race by non-partisan election forecasters, including the Cook Political Report, to a tossup.
Republicans also appear to be walking away from New Mexico - the party recently pulled reserved ad time from the airwaves - where they had high hopes for former GOP representative Heather Wilson. She has failed to close the gap against Rep. Martin Heinrich in a state that's also leaning toward Obama.
Similarly, Republicans eyed an upset in Obama's native Hawaii where former GOP governor Linda Lingle has run a strong campaign but may not have enough cross-ballot appeal to win in a state where Obama has a very strong edge.
Efforts to pick up Democratic seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida likewise seem to be falling short, as Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Bill Nelson of Florida are now favored for re-election in polls and by election forecasters.
Democrats can lose no more than three seats and hold the majority if Obama wins re-election and the vice president is the tie-breaker in a 50-50 Senate. Larry Sabato, a veteran political analyst at the University of Virginia, estimates a 49-45 Democratic edge, with six races in real contention: Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
That means Republicans will have to run the table in all six to win outright, or win five and hope that Romney is elected so his vice president can break a tie.
GOP silver linings
Republicans are not abandoning hopes of a takeover. "No one on our side ever thought that winning back the majority would be easy and certainly there have been unexpected developments for both parties this cycle, but with four weeks to go Republicans are well positioned in a range of key races across the country. We believe Republicans will make gains and certainly a path to the majority still exists," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
A shifting national landscape has put at least one previously unexpected pickup of a Democratic seat within striking distance.
Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon, best known as the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has run an aggressive, well-funded bid against Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, who has failed to recover yet from a steady stream of attacks over two past lawsuits against him for nonpayment of rent on an apartment in 2003 and a home foreclosure in 2007. The matters were settled quickly when Murphy paid his debts, but the political fallout has lingered.
McMahon, who lost in 2010 to Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, has also done a better job selling her personal story about rising out of bankruptcy to become a successful businesswoman and highlighting her more moderate views in a Democratic state - she supports abortion rights, for instance.
"McMahon has run a great race," said Jennifer Duffy, a non-partisan analyst with the Cook Political Report. Duffy said McMahon has excelled at recasting herself to voters, while painting a negative portrait of Murphy. "People thought she was just a rich lady who invented wrestling."
The tightening opportunities for the GOP has forced Republicans to take a second look at the unusual Maine Senate race, where former governor Angus King, running as an independent, has taken a hit in the polls despite being the early favorite. Congressional Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expect him to caucus with Democrats if he wins.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, after initially walking away from the state, has gone in with weeks of statewide negative ads. Its strategy is to drive down King in hopes of driving his supporters to little-known Democrat Cynthia Dill. If Dill can peel away enough of the vote, it could give Republican Charles Summers a narrow victory in a three-way race. "This is a small needle, and they know it, but I can't blame them for trying," Duffy said.
Republicans are also holding their own in two of the tightest races: Montana and Nevada. Polling averages compiled by the political Web site RealClearPolitics give incumbent GOP Sen. Dean Heller a 1.6-point lead over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has been hurt by an ongoing ethics probe into allegations she used her office to boost her husband's medical practice. Berkley, however, has two powerful allies in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who does not want to see a Democrat lose in his back yard, and Obama, who is leading Romney.
Montana is a state where Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is hoping the Romney coattail effect will give him the boost he needs to oust Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. The race's importance has grown as Republican hopes have faded elsewhere. Republicans are also hopeful that an uphill battle by wealthy businessman Tom Smith to oust Casey in Pennsylvania will offer a late-breaking opportunity, but analysts are skeptical. "Casey is awake now and focused, so I suspect he stems Smith's momentum," Duffy said.
The biggest blow to Republicans came when the Missouri Senate campaign of Republican Rep. Todd Akin nose-dived in August after he made controversial comments about "legitimate rape." Party leaders and outside groups withdrew from the race and called on Akin to quit.
Akin's determination to stay in may prompt the GOP to get back in to the race in the closing weeks if Akin can keep the race competitive. National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Jesmer released a carefully worded statement in late September that suggested the party could re-engage. "As with every Republican Senate candidate, we hope Todd Akin wins in November and we will continue to monitor this race closely in the days ahead," he said.
Supporting Akin also carries with it risks of making it an issue in other competitive races. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who runs the Senate Democrats' campaign operation, made clear that if party leaders throw Akin a lifeline, Democrats will seek to make it an issue in every remaining competitive race. "All Republican candidates across the country are now going to have to answer for their party's support of Akin," she said.
Back in Boston
Each race has its own unique contours, and in Massachusetts the pitch to working-class voters is at its core. Brown won his election upset by making overtures to working-class voters and stressing his common background. Warren has become a celebrated liberal activist for her work to advance consumers' rights and her harsh takedown of Wall Street since the financial collapse.
Warren, 63, has never held political office but the Oklahoma-born candidate has ties to the state through nearly 20 years teaching at Harvard University. Her involvement in national politics escalated during the financial crisis when she was tapped by Congress to serve on an oversight panel to monitor bank bailouts. She was also a pivotal advocate for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010, but her nomination to run the new agency was opposed by financial institutions and blocked by Senate Republicans who found her too partisan. Her aggressive language against Wall Street was captured in prime time at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte when she declared: "People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged."
National Democrats have touted Warren as one of the party's top recruits. Murray told reporters recently that Warren is a key reason Democrats have a reasonable chance at holding the Senate. "The reason we are where we are today is because of people like Elizabeth Warren," she said, adding that candidates like her "helped put us in a good place."
Brown has a high profile for a freshman senator because of his historic 2010 upset in the race for Kennedy's seat. His likeability and centrist voting record have made Brown a tough Republican to beat in a heavily Democratic state. Brown is the third most liberal Republican senator, according to annual vote ratings compiled by National Journal, which place him square in the center of the U.S. Senate.
Brown has also highlighted Warren's Ivy League pedigree. In their debates, he almost exclusively refers to her as "Professor Warren." Asked at their most recent debate if she believes he was trying to cast her as an elitist, Warren dismissed it. "I worked very hard for this and it does not bother me," she said.
Poor and blue-collar workers make up just over a quarter of the state. Romney at the top of the ticket has punctuated the divide, as Democrats repeatedly try to tie Brown to the former wealthy governor, who is unpopular. For many voters, it's working.
"Scott Brown, he's like Mitt Romney localized on steroids," said Joseph Flynn, 27, a Charlestown native who works two jobs in construction and security and said his family has had a hard time making ends meet. He and his wife were forced out of their apartment when he was injured and temporarily couldn't work his construction job. They are currently living with family.
"I'd like to see more hard-working people like me get ahead," he said. "Things are hard for people like ourselves." His wife, Tammy, is currently unemployed and said her vote for Warren will be only the second time she's voted in her lifetime. She's 37. "She's for the people, I believe in her," she said.