Ever since he sprang onto the political scene two years ago, Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has had to walk a difficult political tightrope—transforming himself from a Tea Party hero to a New England moderate.
The latest possible land-mine for Brown in his decision to co-sponsor legislation, written by Republican Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, to allow employers to opt out of requirements to provide healthcare coverage for religious or moral reasons. It was sparked by the controversy over whether religious institutions should be required to provide contraception. It's a position which could pit the state's strong Catholic population against its generally liberal social views, adding yet another wrinkle to one of the biggest Senate races this year.
Brown's tendency to buck party leadership and vote with Democrats on issues such as financial reform appears to be paying off. A poll from Suffolk University released Thursday shows Brown with a nine-point lead over his challenger, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. When asked what word they thought of when hearing his name, the most popular answer—aside from "Republican"—was "independent," a valuable identification in an age when voters value authenticity. Not all polls show Brown leading—a poll from Mass Inc. released earlier this month shows Warren in the lead—but most show that Brown remains as popular in Massachusetts politics as fellow senator John Kerry or Gov. Deval Patrick.
"How do you not like Scott Brown? He's extremely likable," says Marc Landry, a professor of political science at Boston College. "He and Warren are playing for these voters who are, by national standards, liberals, but they're torn between their affection for Brown and their policy views, which are more closely reflected by Warren. That's where the battleground is."
Warren, who became a favorite of the Occupy Wall Street movement due to her early advocacy for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is having trouble getting herself known in Massachusetts, according to the Suffolk University poll. Warren is considered to be the likely Democratic nominee against Brown, who is running for a full Senate term after winning a special election following the death of long-time Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. With Democrats on the defensive in their national Senate battles, Massachusetts is one of the few races where they have a chance to go on offense.
There isn't enough data to reflect on how Massachusetts residents feel about Obama's mandate that employees of religious institutions, excluding churches, be supplied with birth control through their insurers. The state has a large Catholic population, but is also generally liberal on social issues, making it a difficult issue to predict. Political observers believe it will likely come down to whether the issue is perceived as an issue of morals or government overreach.
"I would think that there's some benefit for Brown in this issue," Landry says. "There are, in this state, Catholics who are hardly conservative on most questions, and probably aren't even conservative on contraception, but are a little grouchy about the government being so pushy towards the church."
The issue is tied up with Obama's healthcare overhaul—which has been closely linked with a similar law passed in Massachusetts in 2006 under then-governor Mitt Romney. Brown's stiff opposition to Obama's bill nearly derailed it in 2010, but he supports the state law. Democrats were quick to note that the law included a similar birth control mandate for some religious institutions.
There is also a big chance for a backlash if Warren can use the issue to connect Brown to the religious right.
"[Warren] is trying to make him a radical, conservative Republican. If he steps into that role, he's in trouble," says Raymond La Raja, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "He's got to be careful that he's not seen as some guy on the religious right. They don't want a Rick Santorum in Massachusetts."