RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Voters in New Hampshire's neighbor to the south, Massachusetts, may determine which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. Despite its liberal reputation, the home of Jack Kennedy and Tip O'Neill has never elected a woman as governor, or senator. And in the tight race between Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, gender could prove the difference. Curt Nickisch reports from member station WBUR, in Boston.
CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: When Scott Brown won his Senate seat in a special election, in 2010, he was not hurt by something his female opponent would have had a harder time explaining away; that when he was 22, he posed nude for Cosmopolitan, to help pay for law school. Now, in his re-election race, his current challenger is also a woman. Elizabeth Warren was asked about Brown's education financing a year ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How did you pay for your college education?
ELIZABETH WARREN: I kept my clothes on.
NICKISCH: Warren went to law school, too. She's now a Harvard Law professor. Brown responded two days later, in an interview with Kevin Karlson of Boston radio station WZLX.
KEVIN KARLSON: Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off...
SEN. SCOTT BROWN: Thank God.
KARLSON: That's what I said...
NICKISCH: Brown's response struck a nerve among women here. They've seen Massachusetts consistently vote down women running for high political office. Neighboring New Hampshire is currently served by two women U.S. senators. Maine has two as well. Connecticut has elected multiple women governors. But never one in "Kennedy Country." Carol Hardy-Fanta, of the University of Massachusetts, says this state has an especially long tradition of politics as the path to wealth and influence.
CAROL HARDY-FANTA: They say politics is a blood sport here - and it is everywhere. I mean, everybody wants power. But men are never going to give this up without a really big fight.
NICKISCH: Massachusetts is the lone state that tilted for dove George McGovern for president, in 1972. It's the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. But Victoria Budson, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says this state is not as liberal as people think.
VICTORIA BUDSON: Massachusetts was founded by the Puritans. And some of that sense of Puritan propriety and norms, and expected sets of behaviors, has remained.
NICKISCH: Elizabeth Warren has a shot at breaking some of those norms. In recent polls, she leads Scott Brown among likely female voters. To try to chip away at Warren's lead among women, Scott Brown has been running TV spots.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Scott Brown is pro-choice, and he supports a woman's right to choose...
NICKISCH: Other ads show him embracing his wife, a former TV reporter; or posing for the camera with his two daughters.
Some voters are uneasy watching gender play a role in the race. Boston retiree Mike Lloyd says stereotypes should not decide what could be a pivotal election nationally.
MIKE LLOYD: It just doesn't influence me. I don't particularly care whether he's tall or handsome, or that she's not 25 and ravishingly beautiful.
NICKISCH: But other voters, like Michelle Burrell, say gender does matter.
MICHELLE BURRELL: Boston is full of - majority men, I want to say; not ruling, but running, the town. We need more women in the world, putting a mark on this town.
NICKISCH: Ten years ago, Shannon O'Brien lost to a Republican man - the governor's office, to Mitt Romney. O'Brien says this year's tight Senate race here, may be different.
SHANNON O'BRIEN: I was outspent three and a half, to one. Elizabeth Warren, I think, has leveled that playing field. This should bode well for her chances to win, in November.
NICKISCH: And where is that money coming from? Ironically, in her bid to become the first female U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Warren has raised much of her campaign donations from out of state.
For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.