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How Massachusetts Became 2012’s Nastiest Race

The U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be one of the highlights of the election year: a battle of ideas between a charismatic moderate Republican and a nationally-revered, liberal consumer advocate. Instead, it’s degenerated into one of 2012’s most negative and petty campaigns.

It reached a new low this week when video emerged of Brown staffers making “Indian war whoops” and doing tomahawk chops outside the site of the campaign’s first debate last week. (The taunting was a reference to the fact that Warren’s identified herself in law school paperwork as part Native American, which inspired Republicans to label her “Fauxcohontas.”) The scene inside the debate wasn't much prettier: Brown launched a personal attack on Warren before she could even introduce herself. Yesterday, Warren released a defensive ad accusing Brown of “attacking my family.”

How did we wind up with white guys in collared shirts and backwards baseball caps doing the tomahawk chop? History didn’t seem to point it this direction. After all, the last regularly scheduled Senate race to be competitive in the state, the 1996 political duel between John Kerry and then-Governor William Weld was relatively high minded and fought on the issues.

The Brown-Warren race started on the right foot too, when both candidates agreed to forgo Super PAC support in January. But since then, the race has gotten increasingly bitter as Brown has drummed up controversy on Warren’s heritage while the Harvard Law professor has tried to tie the pro-choice moderate to extreme conservatives in the Senate. At times, it seems the race is more focused on Oklahoma than Massachusetts. Brown derides Warren’s claims of Indian roots in that state while Warren tries to tie Brown to James Inhofe, the climate-change denying, ultra-conservative senator from the Sooner State.

“Both candidates deserve a lot of credit for the ban on outside groups, which has been holding and makes a big difference,” acknowledges Peter Canellos, the editor of the Boston Globe editorial page (for whom, in full disclosure, I once worked). However he admits “those of us who anticipated high minded discussion are disappointed that so many character and personality issues have been at the forefront.”

In fact, the campaign may be about to get even tougher. Republican strategist Rick Wilson points to recent questions about whether Warren practiced law without a license in Massachusetts, saying they’re “solid gold” on par with “dead girl, live boy, bag of money.” However, according to a statement for the counsel for the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, Warren likely “didn’t run afoul” of any state rules in submitting briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One Massachusetts Democratic insider, familiar with the race, sees the negativity as a conscious choice of the Brown campaign. In his eyes, Brown’s only path to victory all along was “to blow [Warren] up.” In contrast to the 1996 race, where Kerry had a “baseline of support” as a two-term Senator, Warren is more vulnerable because this is her first bid for elected office. However, the insider thinks Brown’s tactics may be starting to backfire: “People are getting sick of the nastiness,” he says.

Indeed, the danger for Brown is that these attacks will undermine his greatest strength: his natural ability as a retail politician. Although Warren has improved on the stump, she is still prone to being caricatured, in the words of Wilson, “as an automaton from Planet Liberal.” Brown’s personal attacks could, however, turn Warren into a sympathetic figure in the eyes of many votes—after all, negative ads can often backfire, as Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt showed when they mutually immolated each other during the waning days of the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

In retrospect, the high hopes for the race were a bit quixotic. After all, Brown was subject to cheap shots about his career as a male model during the 2010 special election. And even the Weld-Kerry gentleman’s agreement fell apart in the last weeks of the campaign in a tedious dispute over the arithmetic of buying advertising. Particularly now, in a race where both candidates may worry about being out of the state’s ideological mainstream—after all, Massachusetts may be too moderate for a Cambridge liberal but still far too liberal for any Republican—character and personality may just be a far safer battleground for both candidates to wage their campaigns.