You can’t throw a rock in the blogosphere without hitting a postmortem on Scott Brown’s decisive defeat of Martha Coakley for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly infested by Ted Kennedy and, before him, JFK himself. I may as well add my own. Here are seven lessons to be drawn:
1. Defeat Has Many Fathers: There’s an awful temptation to spin the vote for Brown as the result of this cause or that – Coakley was a terrible, gaffe-prone candidate, Brown was a good one, glamourous and hard-working, Democrats were caught napping, voters were upset about Obamacare, voters were spooked by the Underwear Bomber, the special election was strangely timed, the enthusiasm gap, the poor track record of female candidates in Massachusetts, etc. But the fact is, it had to be all of them.
Look: In the past three decades, Republicans have won zero Senate races in Massachusetts but have won the Governorship four times with three different candidates. Bill Weld got 50.19% of the vote when he was elected in 1990, Paul Cellucci 50.81% in 1998, and Mitt Romney 49.77% in 2002. (Weld got over 70% of the vote when he was re-elected in 1994). Brown beat Coakley 52-47, meaning that he had the best showing by a non-incumbent top-level statewide Republican in decades. For contrast, in 2006, Deval Patrick carried Massachusetts 56-35, a 21-point margin. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Massachusetts 62-36, a 26-point margin. In other words, the electorate swung 26 points from the 2006 Governor’s race and 31 points from the 2008 presidential race. To illustrate:
And turnout was very, very strong for a special election – there were 2,249,026 ballots cast compared to 2,219,779 in the 2006 Governor’s race, a regularly scheduled election (2,165,490 votes were cast in that year’s Senate race). A special election on a cold day in January outdrawing an Election Day race is surely a sign of an energized and plugged-in electorate, especially in a state where a vast proportion of the population is college students, many of whom were returning from winter break just before or after the election. Brown’s showing was so strong and turnout so high, he actually got more votes (1,168,107 to 1,104,284) than John McCain did in a presidential election year (when 3,048,438 votes were cast).
A swing that huge can’t be, and never is, explained by only one factor. Jim Bunning’s re-election campaign in 2004 was every bit as disastrous as George Allen’s and Conrad Burns’ in 2006, but a favorable environment saved Bunning, while a hostile one helped sink Allen and Burns. Here, similarly, it took a bad environment to make Coakley vulnerable even with all her gaffes and blunders.
So, let the condemnations of the Coakley campaign go on, especially how inexcusably she was caught off guard even after Republicans wrested the Governor’s races in Virginia and especially New Jersey out of Democratic hands – even if you ascribed those races to poor candidates, that was no reason to think you could safely be a poor candidate.
On the issues, it’s also been overlooked the extent to which Brown made inroads by pounding Coakley on national security, an issue that suddenly returned to prominence after the Christmas Day arrest of the Underwear Bomber. Brown’s campaign believed that this was an under-discussed factor:
Scott Brown’s top strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, told reporters this morning that Brown’s demand that terror suspects be tried outside civilian courts had proven a more powerful issue than health care in the Massachusetts senate race.
Brown said during the campaign that he didn’t believe the Christmas Day bomber should be tried in civilian courts, and said he didn’t think waterboarding is torture. He ran an ad arguing that Constitutional rights don’t apply to terror suspects.
Contrasted to Coakley, who claimed in a debate that there were no terrorists in Afghanistan (not long after the suicide bombing there that reportedly killed several CIA agents) and later griped that she’d had to take too dovish a stance on the Afghan war to survive the primary, At a minumum, Brown succeeded in drawing a contrast on national security without suffering any appreciable damage for taking basically the Dick Cheney position. (The one exit poll taken by a Republican polling firm showed higher voter support for President Obama’s position on Afghanistan – a position more hawkish than Coakley’s – than Obama’s overall approval rating).
All of that said, it’s positively insane for pundits to ignore the fact that a Brown victory would have been impossible, no matter how inept Coakley’s campaign, without widespread voter concern – reflected in national polls for months now – that the national Democrats were headed in the wrong direction on health care and on the size of government. Michael Moynihan at Reason had probably the best roundup of anecdotes on this trend:
I have spent the past few days talking to union members, former Democrats, current Democrats, Kennedy voters, former Deval Patrick enthusiasts, and gay rights campaigners who are – as almost all of them say – Scott Brown supporters worried about the “explosive growth of government.” All natives of the commonwealth and reflexively Democratic, they kvetch about spending, taxes, and health care. As one member of a pipefitters union told me, “none of the guys in my union trust that Obama won’t hit us with that 40 percent health care tax.”
Fifty-two percent of Bay State voters who were surveyed as the polls closed said they opposed the federal health care reform measure and 42 percent said they cast their ballot to help stop President Obama from passing his chief domestic initiative.
“I’m not surprised it was the top issue, but I was surprised by how overwhelming an issue it was. It became a focal point for the frustration that has been brewing with voters, and it’s a very personal issue that affects everyone,” said Tony Fabrizio of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican firm that conducted the exit poll of 800 voters…
According to Fabrizio’s findings, 48 percent of Massachusetts voters said that health care was the single issue driving their vote and 39 percent said they voted for Brown specifically because of his vocal opposition to the measure.
The fact that many of these voters expressed approval of Obama – 55% – may provide some comfort to the president personally, but it’s of no use to anybody else trying to defend votes in favor of his agenda.
The reason for this is that Obama and the national Democrats have tried to push the electorate too far too fast in the direction of radical changes to domestic policy even for the voters of the Northeast. One meme emerging on the Left is that Bush was vastly more effective in getting legislation passed with fewer Senators than Obama – but if you look at the extensive record of Bush’s first term, as well as the more modest record of his second, what do you see? You see tax cuts, but as Reagan and Clinton illustrated, Presidents usually get their way on tax policy, and the next guy gets his own crack. You see a lot of action on foreign policy and in some cases (the Patriot Act) domestic national security policy, also an area where the country traditionally expects Congress to do what the President wants. You see a battery of bipartisan, centrist or neoliberal legislative actions that nobody would rightly call conservative priorities – No Child Left Behind, McCain-Feingold, Sarbanes-Oxley, the Medicare Prescription Drug bill, the bankruptcy bill, the creation of the Homeland Security Department, various horrible farm bills (Bush’s failed immigration bill would have fallen in this category). And you do see a few conservative priorities with broad bipartisan support – the partial-birth abortion ban, the Class Action Fairness Act.
But what of agenda items as large and ideologically divisive as Obamacare, cap and trade or the stimulus bill? Social Security reform never got proposed, let alone voted on. School choice was dropped from NCLB. Drilling in ANWR never passed. Bush never even tried to enact deep budget cuts of any kind. If Bush was better at attracting bipartisan support, it’s because most of his agenda wasn’t the kind of overreach that Obama’s is.
The supporting evidence backs up the exit poll on the Brown voters’s unease at all this. Multiple polls up to the election – polls that had Brown in the neighborhood of his final margin of victory – showed Brown winning around the same proportion of independent voters (about two-thirds) as Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey. The consistency of those numbers across different states certainly suggests a broader trend than just the incompetence of Democratic candidates (although it may be especially pronounced in states with unpopular Democratic Governors).
The turnout for this election under these circumstances also compellingly suggests that the voters understood perfectly well the stakes, endlessly repeated in the media – that a Brown victory would put an end to the Democrats’ carte blanche ability to pass health care and other legislation without making any compromises needed to garner Republican support, and that in particular the health care bill would probably be doomed if Brown won. People may make their minds up about which candidate they like better for a variety of reasons, but nobody drags themselves out of the house in the middle of January to go vote just because one candidate is a good-looking guy with a truck and the other one thinks Curt Schilling’s a Yankees fan. We can quote chapter and verse on the polls all day, but the turnout of 2.2 million people speaks more eloquently than any poll. This election mattered, and the voters treated it as if it did.
The results will be debated at length, but it’s impossible to square the massive size of the turnaround in perhaps the nation’s buest state with the idea that the only people concerned about the growth of government are right-wing nutcases.
2. Of RINOs and Tea Parties: One of the underrated factors in Brown’s victory was the unanimity of his support from the Right to the center-right. Brown is a moderate Republican of the type who’d draw a primary opponent, and deservedly so, in a state like Utah or South Carolina. Among other things, he’s pro-choice and supports the state’s Romneycare health plan, and analyses of his voting record showed him to the left of his other GOP colleagues in the Massachusetts state Senate. But unlike the state legislators who ran in special elections in New York’s 20th and 23d Districts, Brown drew the united and enthusiastic support of conservative Republicans and “tea party” groups. Why? Partly due to the stakes and symbolism in the election, and partly due to a willingness to tolerate almost anything for a win in Massachusetts – but also because despite Brown’s moderation, he was with the Right on opposing the Big Three prongs of Obama’s plan for metastatic growth of federal spending and regulation. He vowed to filibuster Obamacare, albeit arguing against it in good part on federalism grounds. He blasted “cap and trade” as an unaffordable tax hike. And he tore into the stimulus, arguing that the stimulus “didn’t work” while calling for a spending freeze, and warned that the stimulus money could be a crutch to prevent localities from facing their budget problems sooner. He also signed a no-new-taxes pledge.
In short, Brown drew a sharp contrast between his position and that of the Beltway Democrats on spending and the growth of government – and that clear contrast on policy allowed him to keep his own base united while pursuing a basically upbeat campaign of outreach to the center and while departing from standard-issue Republicanism on other issues. His successful campaign underscores the point I’ve made for some time: as long as a candidate is with the party on its dominant theme (which at present is opposition to runaway government), each election needs to be evaluated on its merits with an eye to finding candidates suited to their local conditions.
3. The High Hard One: As I noted above, the evidence suggests that the political climate and Brown’s use of the issues were at least as large a factor in his victory as Coakley’s missteps. That being said, Coakley’s ham-handed response to Curt Schilling has to make his endorsement of Brown one of the most consequential celebrity endorsements in electoral history, given the extent to which the Schilling gaffe put Coakley off her game in the race’s closing news cycles and contributed to the despair and embarrassment of her supporters. (I asked on Twitter for other genuinely impactful celebrity endorsements, and suggestions included Oprah’s primary endorsement of Obama, James Brown endorsing Nixon in 1968 and Sinatra endorsing JFK in 1960). Take-home lesson: celebrity endorsements can be distracting and can backfire, but you never know when they’ll come in handy – and it’s dangerous for a candidate to fire back directly at a popular celebrity.
4. Obama Can’t Help You Now: I’ve written about this at length before after the defeats of Corzine and Deeds, and you can now add Coakley to the list: an appearance by Obama can’t save a failing Democrat. Whether or not Obama is a net negative, his presence doesn’t seem to be moving the needle in favor of anyone but himself. Note that Bill Owens, the winning Democratic candidate in NY-23, did not have an Obama appearance.
5. Ted Shoulda Quit While He Was Ahead: The Democrats put themselves in the situation of having to call a special election in two ways. First, they changed the law in 2004 to require an election rather than a gubernatorial appointment for an open Senate seat, because if John Kerry beat George W. Bush they didn’t want Mitt Romney nominating his replacement. A flagrantly opportunistic effort to change that law back petered out last summer. Second – and Erick Erickson has gotten a lot of flak for saying this on CNN, but it happens to be true – they could have held the election much earlier in a much more favorable political climate if Ted Kennedy had stepped down when it became apparent that he was dying. Ted’s insistence on staying in office until his death ended up being the undoing of his party and, perhaps, of his lifelong goal of national government health insurance.
6. Hard Times For The Ladies: Pundits are far too quick to draw conclusions about voter racism/sexism from sample sizes as small as one election, but putting aside Hillary Clinton beating Barack Obama in the Massachusetts Democratic primary in 2008, the record of female politicians at the statewide level in Massachusetts over the past decade has been terrible. Republican Jane Swift, promoted to Governor from Lieutenant Governor when Cellucci left offfice for an ambassadorship, made headlines for giving birth to twins in office, but was so widely mocked and reviled across the partisan and ideological spectrum that she didn’t run for re-election. Democratic State Treasurer Shannen O’Brien’s campaign against Mitt Romney in 2002 was a flop, and observers generally viewed her as a weak candidate who lost a winnable race and engaged in silly and pointless attacks. GOP Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey got crushed by Deval Patrick in 2006. And now Coakley, who will doubtless be remembered as one of the worst statewide candidates in memory in any state, at least among those who’d been heavily favored to win an election. Women have had plenty of success in statewide office in the Northeast – Jodi Rell, Jeanne Shaheen, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins – but not in Massachusetts.
7. Nobody’s Safe: The biggest impact of this election, beyond what it does to the healthcare bill, is its effect on recruitment, retirement and morale in races around the country – in Indiana, for example, there’d seem few safer red-state Democrats than Senator and former Governor Evan Bayh, but the GOP is now trying to recruit Congressman Mike Pence to challenge Bayh; Pence would be a formidable opponent. Republicans are now fired up for Senate races in Illinois, Delaware and (if George Pataki can be recruited) New York for Senate seats previously held by Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary, respectively.
Perhaps the race where the incumbent’s fortunes must be most dramatically re-evaluated after Brown’s victory is Barbara Boxer’s race for re-election in California. Boxer’s polls have been in the dumps for some time now; the latest Rasmussen poll shows her with just 46% of the vote against each of her three Republican opponents (the fact that Boxer has drawn three significant opponents – Tom Campbell, Chuck DeVore, and Carly Fiorina – should say something in itself). That said, whenever I’ve thought about that race or talked to anyone else about it, the usual response is “yes, but it’s California.”
Brown’s victory changes all that, at least for 2010, anyway. There’s no guarantee that a candidate as arrogant, brittle, thin-skinned and hard-left as Boxer can just bank on a compliant one-party electorate against an energized populist opponent, not in this climate. That doesn’t mean Boxer will be easy pickings, by any means – the California GOP is more than capable of self-destruction, and Boxer is a street fighter – but it does mean the effort to challenge her can’t just be written off based on the state she’s running in.
Not if it can happen in Massachusetts.