Call it the battle of the fluff-n-fold.
At a breakfast gathering of Massachusetts Democrats at this month’s national convention, state party chairman John Walsh joked that Republican Sen. Scott Brown had “spent a couple million dollars folding towels on TV to prove he’s an honorary girl” in his race against Elizabeth Warren. The dig referred to a Brown campaign ad, targeting women voters, in which the senator is shown doing laundry.
Team Brown’s response was fast and furious. They blamed the Warren campaign for the “negative attacks” and tied Walsh’s remarks to Warren’s comment that same week that in her ads “you probably won’t see me folding laundry.”
Angela Davis, chairwoman of Women for Brown, fired off this zinger: “It seems Professor Warren and her spokesman can’t decide if they are just too good to fold laundry, or if household chores are suitable only for women.”
Within hours, Walsh apologized. But no way the senator’s people were letting go of this bone. Davis promptly sent both Warren and Walsh a gift basket of laundry supplies, along with a note (thoughtfully posted on Brown’s campaign site): “With all the mudslinging Elizabeth Warren and her allies have been doing, we thought these laundry supplies would be a useful gift. We might never see Professor Warren fold her own clothes, but she does need to clean up her act and stop with her dirty politics.”
How exactly does the manliest man in the Senate—a hunky triathlete, diehard sports fan, and colonel in the Army National Guard—wind up alleging political emasculation at the hands of a slight, bespectacled Harvard professor and grandmother of three? Such is the peculiar state of the Massachusetts Senate contest, in which a candidate most famous for being a hard-charging, high-powered academic is up against one most famous for having modeled nude, but with all the expected gender roles upended.
The situation presents a tricky stretch of political road for Brown. If things weren’t tough enough for a Republican trying to hold Ted Kennedy’s old seat in true-blue Massachusetts, this time around he must dismantle an accomplished, nationally prominent female opponent—in a year when his party is being accused by Democrats of waging a war on women—without tarnishing the mild-mannered, affable-guy image that is the cornerstone of his political persona. To this end, Brown is laboring to woo Bay State women with his pro-choice views and family-man bona fides.
Like any good pol, Brown knows how to exploit an opening. In the wake of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” blunder, Brown was the first prominent Republican to call for Akin to abandon his Senate candidacy—a move that won Brown a truckload of positive media. Scrambling to burst her opponent’s bubble, Warren charged that the senator’s vote against equal pay and his cosponsoring of an amendment aimed at letting employers opt out of birth-control coverage for moral reasons showed that he was sympathetic to the “radical Republican agenda.” A fired-up Brown doubled down: the week before the GOP convention, he sent an open letter to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, opposing the anti-abortion plank in the party’s platform. Again the media raves came rolling in, and Brown got to spend another several days touting his own iconoclasm. “That’s what being an independent is: not being beholden to anybody,” he explained to Newsweek two days after scolding his party. “It’s not unusual for me to go out there and criticize when somebody says something as ridiculous as what Akin said.”
Political positioning aside, the heart of Brown’s appeal is his regular-guy persona: the pickup truck, the barn jacket, the sports talk, the mumbly, rambly speaking style. He’s like your favorite coach from high school—only way hotter. For this race, Team Brown has moved to gin up their man’s feminine appeal, spotlighting his role as devoted dad and husband. In the towel-folding spot Walsh mocked—titled, simply, “Dad”—Brown’s wife, Gail Huff, gushes about how, during her years as a Boston reporter, “Scott did all the morning routine. Get the girls up. Get them fed. Get them dressed. Get them off to school. He did everything with the kids.” (Talk about mommy porn!) Her pitch in the similarly gauzy “Husband” is even more blatant: “Scott’s always been the one that encouraged me professionally—encouraged me to have my own life, to have my own identity ... He is by far the most understanding of women probably of any man I know.” On the campaign website, you find equally warm-and-fuzzy videos featuring Huff and their two daughters sharing stories about what a great guy Dad is.
Now more than ever, Brown’s picture-perfect family is a key asset—particularly Huff, whom Brown affectionately calls “the boss” and who, as a longtime fixture on Boston TV, remains a local celebrity. On a recent walking tour around Dedham, the couple strolled into Kouzina’s Greek deli, where the woman behind the counter was nice enough to the senator but threw out her arms to Huff and cried, “I want to meet you!” Who can blame her? Huff is terrific at retail politics. As bubbly and effusive as her hubby is laid-back—the Vivarin to his Valium—she seems content to hang around gossiping and handing out hugs all day.
The CW says women voters are turned off by down-and-dirty politicking. For the most part, that suits Brown fine: staying positive fits with the reasonable, bipartisan image he so carefully cultivates. (In discussing the radioactive topic of health-care reform, the senator notably avoids the loaded term “Obamacare.”) Early in this cycle, Brown called for both campaigns to reject negative advertising from outside groups. Warren agreed, and the race has been devoid of the usual flood of toxic TV spots.
But no candidate succeeds solely on uplift and optimism. Distinctions must be drawn. How does a professionally nice guy manage this without stumbling into the common trap of allowing his female opponent to brand him a bully? Simple: he brands her one first. So even as Brown promotes himself as a pragmatic consensus-builder of good will, he portrays Warren as a brutish radical bent on tearing him down with her dirty politics and partisan bile. Brown spends a lot of time calling on her to cease her dishonest mud-slinging. “I would just ask that she just stop trying to mislead voters,” he repeatedly pleads. One of the senator’s favorite lines depicts Warren as a violent threat to good government: “I shudder to think of a hundred Professor Warrens in Washington,” he warns again and again, “throwing rocks, leaving blood and teeth on the floor, and refusing to compromise.” Thus is the pointy-headed professor transformed into a skull-splitting thug.
At this point in the campaign, there isn’t much of a gender gap. Post-convention polling shows Warren with a 2-point edge among the ladies, while Brown’s lead among men has shrunk to 1 point. (Maybe he’s taken the sensitive-guy shtick too far?) Less than two months out, the race is tighter than a pair of Levis dried on high heat. And whether Brown wins will likely come down to just how many Massachusetts women see him, if not exactly as an honorary girl, at least as the candidate with their best interests at heart.