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Poison Ivy: Why Elizabeth Warren's Day Job May Undo Her Senate Campaign

Few things are more grating to the proud people of Massachusetts than claiming to understand their worldview on the basis of a few Good Will Hunting quotes. Still, even the most jaded Bay Staters should admit that sometimes a dose of Ben Affleck helps to clarify things. When Affleck’s character, in one of that movie’s most famous scenes, walks into a Harvard bar and muses, “I thought there’d be equations and shit on the walls”, he’s gesturing at a sentiment that many in Massachusetts would likely endorse—that Harvard is in their state, but not of it.

When Elizabeth Warren, the intellectual architect of the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), declares her candidacy for U.S. Senate on Wednesday, she’ll already enjoy a national media profile. But, assuming she gets past the Democratic primary, any attempt to use her background as a consumer advocate to run a populist campaign against incumbent Republican Scott Brown will be burdened by her day job as a professor at Harvard Law School. Even before Warren officially declared, she was already being accused of “Harvard elitism.” Her fortunes in 2012 may well turn on whether she finds an effective response.

THERE ARE TWO VOTER cohorts likely to resent Elizabeth Warren solely based on her status as a Harvard professor. The first is Massachusetts’ tiny but hard-core Republican base, which has a monopoly on talk radio and is already linking Warren’s Harvard connection with Obama, to say nothing of her recently vacated post as “Assistant to the President.” Todd Feinburg, co-host of one of Boston’s popular morning call-in radio shows, told me that “all my callers know about her is she’s a Harvard elitist. They see the country being run by Harvard elitists who don’t know what they’re doing.” Another staunch conservative, Barbara Anderson, president of the libertarian group Citizens for Limited Taxation and longtime weekly columnist for the Salem News, explained to me, “Harvard becomes a picture in the dictionary next to ‘overeducated liberals,’” adding that her son’s economics professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst had “kidnapped his brain.”

But registered Republicans represent only 11 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, and Warren definitely won’t be courting Feinburg and Anderson. Rather, she’ll be after another group that may already be casting suspicion on her resume—the historically Democratic blue-collar voters whom Scott Brown won over with a barn coat and a pick-up truck in the 2010 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.

For these voters, the evocation of Harvard doesn’t conjure up Obama’s image as much as it triggers class and cultural resentments. In an August 22 column “Elite Dem is Far From Middle Class,” in the conservative Boston Herald, Holly Robichaud wrote that “as a Harvard professor married to another Harvard professor, [Warren] may find connecting with middle-class voters a tough sell,” drawing attention to her $350,000 salary and adding that “what appeals to liberal elites is repulsive to us in the beleaguered middle class.”

Specifically, the middle-class and lower-middle-class voters Brown appealed to are what veteran Boston political commentator Jon Keller calls “townies,” those multi-generational Massachusettsans who don’t live in the state’s campus nexuses, poor urban areas or affluent suburbs, but in the hardscrabble towns and cities on Boston’s periphery. Keller argues Brown peeled them off in unprecedented fashion not only because of his everyman persona but because of the way he baited their economic and cultural anxieties: Brown incited small-town fears about illegal immigrants underbidding contracts, and argued that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act would “screw unions out of their gold-plated plans.”

Brown's instinctual grasp of these resentments contrasted with the perceived insularity of Martha Coakley, his “Boston bubble” challenger. The antipathy toward “Boston,” in the popular imagination of 2010, stemmed from the fact that it was doing better economically than the rest of the state. Lifelong machine politician Coakley wasn't able to convince much of the state that she lived in the same world they did. (Coakley’s unfortunate reaction to Brown shaking hands with fans in front of Fenway Park before an outdoor Bruins game—“In the cold?”—didn’t help.) By explicitly leveraging regional cultural cues, Keller says, Brown became “the king of townie Massachusetts.”

Permit another movie reference to help quantify the significance of the coronation. Dilapidated working-class Lowell, where “The Fighter” was set, went narrowly to Brown in 2010. According to Massachusetts demographer Robert Sullivan, it was the first time Lowell voted Republican in a Senate or Congressional election since 1972, in part because Brown capitalized on the Democratic party base’s steady shift away from blue-collar labor to white-collar liberals and from less educated to more educated voters. While Mitt Romney won the governor’s office in 2002 on a “reform Republican” platform with the help of the state’s well-educated voters, Brown, by contrast, made unprecedented gains largely by seizing on worse-educated areas that were once Democratic strongholds.

Which brings us back to the Harvard question. If townie voters identify Warren with Harvard (and echt-liberal Cambridge, where she happens to live) to the same degree they linked Coakley with Boston, Sullivan and other local pundits predict that Brown will carry the election. Thinking along the same lines, Brown’s campaign has already begun calling her “Professor Warren.” The Massachusetts Republican Party followed suit, recently putting out an anti-Warren press release entitled “E.W.=M.C.2. In other words, Elizabeth Warren equals Martha Coakley squared; the new Democratic Senate candidate is an even more out-of-touch version of the last.

There are good reasons, however, to think that the charges won’t stick. Complicating Brown’s messaging is the fact that Warren’s Horatio Alger background isn’t dissimilar to his own. Her populist bonafides are seemingly at least as plausible as his: Where he was raised in a broken home in sleepy Wakefield and did whatever he had to to pay for his education, Warren grew up poor in Oklahoma, won a scholarship to college, and paid her own way through law school. She can also argue that her scholarly work on bankruptcy and contract law hasn’t secluded her in an ivory tower, but given her a pathway to understanding the problems of ordinary people. Indeed, Warren’s popular appeal, bolstered by her well-publicized tenacity on Capitol Hill, is predicated upon her blunt insistence that if consumers had been better protected, the financial crisis, and the recession, could have been avoided. Warren stands to benefit from the fact that it was Brown, at the behest of Massachusetts’ big banks, who weakened the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which she herself helped draft.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Warren’s heavy grassroots support—one organization raised $100,000 from 7,000 donors before she had even formed an exploratory committee—resemble the struggling middle-class families Warren chronicled in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap. Far from “Harvard elites,” as I suspected many might be, her early organizers have been hit hard by the recession.

Candice Leonard, a 55-year old freelance sociologist and a charter member of “Cambridge for Elizabeth Warren” has been out of work for six months, though counts herself luckier than most. “People associate [Warren] with economic issues,” she tells me. “It’s not one issue, in many ways it’s the issue. When you’re facing foreclosure, or can’t pay your bills, it permeates your entire life. You can’t be a good parent, you can’t be a productive worker.” 57-year-old Warren activist Paul Dobbs, a college librarian from Boston, told me he “nearly goes bust” at the end of each month and has suffered in the past from hidden credit card fees, which Warren has long railed against.

The challenge to Warren will be to prove to a skeptical electorate that she’s not simply a bookish academic. All indications are that she’s not. As a consumer advocate on the national stage, Warren’s fire and brimstone toward Wall Street may have lost her the chance to head the CFPB in Washington. She’ll need it if she wants the people of Massachusetts to send her back.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.