Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Everyone's Excited about Elizabeth...

The 2012 Senate elections look exceedingly tough for the Democrats. Maintaining their majority will be difficult largely because they are "overexposed": Democrats need to defend a total of 23 seats--six of them open because of retirements. Many of those seats are held by freshmen elected in 2006, and many are in states that are either swing or decidedly red in their political persuasions. Republicans, conversely, must hold 10 seats--and most of those seats are in fairly friendly territory.

Enter Scott Brown, he who unexpectedly defied the predictions of pundits and captured the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by liberal lion Ted Kennedy. If there's a seat Democrats need to pick up--and should--it's this one.

There are lots of things Democrats have going for them. Brown's victory came under unusual circumstances: it was in a special election where voter demographics tend to work in the favor of Republicans, the Democratic nominee--Martha Coakley--was particularly inept as a candidate (she refered to Red Sox pitcher and 2004 World Series hero as "another Yankee fan" and didn't seem interested in doing the spadework of retail politics), and conservative groups were able to concentrate immense amount of resources on this race. Add to this the fact that Massachusetts is--well--MASSACHUSETTS. It is one of the--if not the--bluest state in the country. Obama carried the state by 25 points (making it the sixth best state for Obama), all ten members of the House of Representative representing Massachusetts are Democrats, the Governor is a Democrat, and there are only 32 Republican state legislators in a legislature consisting of 200 representatives and senators total. Add to THAT the fact 2012 is a presidential election year, which should boost voter turnout among Democrats. Both macro- and micro-level trends seem to point to an overwhelming Democratic advantage.

Enter Elizabeth Warren, former Harvard law professor, President Obama's appointee to create a Consumer Protection Bureau, and now candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown. Several of my Facebook friends excitedly point to a recent poll taken less than a week after Warren announced her decision to run which shows her taking a narrow lead over Brown (see here). Liberals are thrilled--she's very popular among the base and she can raise loads of cash, according to another friend of mine. Scott Brown will be consigned to the dustbin of history, right?

Not so fast, folks. I am not convinced that Elizabeth Warren is all that and a bag of chips as a Senate candidate. To be blunt, she's an amateur--she's never held elected office, knows nothing about retail politics, and--despite her "super-star credentials"--is not what I would call a quality candidate as political scientists define the term. She's not even what I would call an ambitious amateur. She doesn't have widespread name recognition, she doesn't have (as far as I know) a huge source of personal wealth to draw upon, and she's never even run for office before. These are exactly the types of candidates that are prone to make mistakes and underwhelm the electorate once they are placed under the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

But what about candidates like Ron Johnson, who came out of nowhere to beat incumbent Senator Russ Feingold? Lightening can strike--but it does so infrequently. Feingold had never really built a deep and enduring connections to voters in Wisconsin and was highly polarizing due to his iconoclast ways. Brown has some assets, too, that are worth noting:

1. His job approval ratings are tepid, but Brown has strong favorability ratings (above 50 percent according to the PPP poll referenced above). If Brown can focus on his personal characteristics and get folks to either forget or downplay his partisan affiliation, this bodes well for him.

2. He can argue that he'll be in the majority party given the Republicans have a fair shot at retaking the majority, and Massachusetts will benefit from having a Republican senator in that majority representing them.

3. While Scott Brown is certainly to the right of the Democratic-leaning electorate in Massachusetts (see this plot of member ideology relative to state ideology at Voteview), he's certainly one--if not THE--most liberal Republican in the Senate. At least, work done by Professor Royce Carroll at Rice University using current voting records demonstrates this is the case (see this plot of Scott Brown relative to other Republicans in the Senate here).

4. If Scott Brown is so vulnerable, one might wonder why so many other experienced and capable Democratic politicians with actual records took a pass on the Brown race. This includes the entire congressional delegation with such capable individuals like Barney Frank, Stephen Lynch, John Tierney, Ed Markey, and Michael Capuano. And don't forget Congresswoman Nicki Tsongas, who has the valuable asset of a well-known and respected last name in addition to her own work in Congress since she was elected in 2006.

Scott Brown is an experienced politician who's run for office before, understands how to put together a successful campaign, and has defied the odds before. He should not be written off. I am not convinced that Elizabeth Warren is the formidable candidate some claim she is. Her "surge" in the polls is likely attributed to the fact that she has a "D" after her name and simply reflect the partisan advantage any Democratic candidate in a state as blue as Massachusetts would enjoy. Once the campaign begins in earnest, we'll see whether she's truly the top-tier recruit national Democrats would have us believe.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Community Resiliency and the Built Environment: Innovations and Policy Issues in Montana

From the Editor: I am posting this blog below for my colleague, Paul Lachapelle. --Dave Parker

As an MSU Extension Faculty member in the Department of Political Science and housed in the MSU Local Government Center, my responsibility is to provide Montana citizens with unbiased, research-based university information and resources on a host of community development issues. An issue facing many communities is how to address their built environment needs and demands. The built environment refers to the human-made physical structures and supporting infrastructure that provide the setting for human activity. In Montana, these surroundings shape our economic, social, environmental, and public health outcomes.

As Editor of the Montana Policy Review, we have devoted our latest issue, Vol. 15, No. 2, titled, Community Resiliency and the Built Environment: Innovations and Policy Issues in Montana to this important issue. With so many community resiliency and built environment policies, programs and projects, we felt it important to highlight the many innovative initiatives currently being designed and implemented across Montana. Citizens and local government leaders from all types of communities—from urban to rural to tribal—want to achieve the best possible outcomes while making the most effective use of limited resources. Policy decisions regarding transportation, land use, and community design influence many aspects of daily living: the distances people travel to work, school, parks, shops, and other destinations; the choice of transportation and housing options; the convenience of purchasing (or growing) healthy foods; the safety and attractiveness of neighborhoods for active living; and the economic and environmental resiliency of the local economy and place.

In Montana, there are many unique case studies that showcase how the built environment influences quality of life and economic prosperity. This issue of the Montana Policy Review presents a series of articles on this topic and identifies best practices, policies and strategies to help communities build safe, healthy and resilient places. In the 13 articles, you will read about community resiliency and the built environment from the people who coordinated or actively participated in all or many facets of the community programs and initiatives. With personal insights and professional learning and wisdom, the stories, narratives, and academic pieces provide the most complete analysis to date of built environment initiatives in Montana from the people who have designed, developed, and delivered the programs and plans. The first few articles present an overview of specific programs related to mapping, master plans, and related land use planning that provides a vision and framework for healthy active communities; these are followed by a set of articles examining issues associated with building and maintaining parks and trails in, near or connecting communities as an economic development and public health strategy; next are a set of articles on the role of transportation in building safe, healthy, and resilient communities with specific case examples of the processes and policy outcomes affecting people and places in the state; the last two articles provide insight on the economics of the built environment with tools and techniques for planning for and funding community initiatives.

In addition to printed to copies, we offer this issue on-line so that readers can click web links, view and download maps and pictures, and disseminate the publication to a far-wider audience than possible in the past. Go to: to download this current issue. For more information about the Local Government Center or the MSU Extension Community Development Program, please contact me at

Paul Lachapelle, Assistant Professor

Department of Political Science