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Democrats see chance to unseat Brown

Leaders say senator may be vulnerable

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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With a best-selling book, a bulging campaign account, and solid poll numbers, US Senator Scott Brown would seem well positioned for his reelection bid next year.

But in Washington and in Massachusetts, Democrats believe that he may be vulnerable, and they are starting to lay the groundwork for what appears to be a serious effort to retake the seat from the Republicans.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is scheduled to arrive in Boston today for two days of meetings with party leaders, political operatives, activists, and Democratic donors as part of the committee’s decision to make the Brown seat a high priority in 2012. Cecil said he believes that the Massachusetts race could help determine the balance of power in the US Senate, where Democrats currently hold a slim majority.

“It’s a priority for us,’’ Cecil said yesterday. “I think we can win in Massachusetts. We are not assessing whether we want to play in Massachusetts. We are going to play in Massachusetts.’’

Cecil argued that Democrats can make a strong case that Brown’s voting record undercuts his efforts to present himself as a moderate Republican. The trip takes place just days after a poll showed Brown drawing little more than 50 percent support against lesser-known Democrats, results that party leaders found encouraging.

The details of the Senatorial Campaign Committee’s involvement have yet to be worked out, Cecil said. But based on its history, the group is capable of pouring millions of dollars into the race. Last year, the committee spent about $10 million helping to get a Democrat elected to the US Senate in Colorado, which has a smaller population than Massachusetts.

Brown’s political strategist said yesterday that Republicans will be prepared to match the Democrats’ efforts.

“Competition is a good thing, and we’ll be ready for it when it comes,’’ said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Brown adviser. “But now is not the time to be talking about campaigns and elections. Scott Brown is focused on creating jobs and bringing fiscal discipline back to Washington. ’’

One of the issues facing Democrats is that the party may be entangled in an expensive and divisive primary, leaving the winner with tapped-out funds and internal party friction that would make it difficult to mount a strong effort against Brown in the seven-week sprint to the general election.

Some party leaders have privately talked of “clearing the field’’ to unite behind a strong candidate before the primary. But Governor Deval Patrick, who controls the state party, is refusing to embrace that idea, two of his chief strategists say.

A host of potential candidates has emerged. They include: Setti Warren, mayor of Newton; Kim Driscoll, mayor of Salem; and Robert Massie, former lieutenant governor nominee and a liberal activist.

Some Democratic leaders are hoping to lure more experienced candidates or public figures who could raise large amounts of money here and nationally or who have a strong background in electoral politics and media relations. One who has been courted, former US Representative Martin T. Meehan, now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has told party leaders he is not interested.

US Representative Michael E. Capuano, who lost in the primary of the Senate special election in 2009, is assessing whether he will run next year.

Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor and an outspoken Wall Street critic who heads President Obama’s newly created Consumer Protection Bureau, is also being courted by some Democrats. Two senior political strategists said she has signaled interest in considering a run against Brown.

Cecil makes his trip just days after release of a poll that showed Brown, who is the arguably the most popular political figure in Massachusetts, getting just over 50 percent vote against potential candidates. Democrats feel that Brown’s standing in the poll shows some weakness because he barely gets a majority.

They think a good grass-roots campaign, similar to that used to reelect Deval Patrick and the state’s entire House delegation, will blunt the advantages that Brown has in money and his strong appeal to independents and conservative Democrats.

A survey taken by the Western New England College Polling Institute indicates he remains popular, with 57 percent of registered voters surveyed saying they approved his handling of his job as US senator. That equals what the poll showed Senator John F. Kerry getting, although only 24 percent disapproved of Brown’s job performance while 34 percent gave Kerry poor marks. The poll, taken March 6-10, surveyed 472 registered Massachusetts voters.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.