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Game Change

On Tuesday, Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown—until recently, a virtual political unknown—upset Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat held for 47 years by the late Edward M. Kennedy. Given the state’s liberal image and the pereceived importance of electing a worthy successor to Kennedy, this result was, for some in Massachusetts and elsewhere, unthinkable. And its poltical implications begin with the fact that the Democrats will lose their 60-40 supermajority in the Senate the day Brown is seated. Already, President Barack Obama has effectively conceded defeat on his pet health-care-reform legislation, calling on Congress to not “jam” anything through before Brown can be certified and seated and to instead try to pass reforms piecemeal.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud over the Democratic Party, it may be that Brown’s election offers insight on how the mood of many voters—fanned by right-wing anti-Obama rhetoric on the airwaves and at Tea Party protests—might be exploited by Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. Brown’s election could be the tip of the iceberg, but it also could serve as a wake-up call.

 

Scenes From a Well-Planned Upset

While Massachusetts Democrats assess blame for who lost the Senate seat, the truth is that Scott Brown won it

By David S. Bernstein

As the Massachusetts U.S. Senate election unfolded yesterday, all that the pols and pundits wanted to talk about was how state Attorney General Martha Coakley managed to lose the race. And there is plenty there to dissect. But there is another part of the story, and that is how state Sen. Scott Brown managed to win it.

To pull off this kind of huge upset, a lot of things have to go right—only one of which is having your opponent run an atrocious campaign.

Give credit to the brain trust behind Brown’s campaign: Mitt Romney’s top people, bred in Massachusetts politics and trained at the top levels of presidential combat. They were assembled on the stage at Park Plaza last night: Beth Myers, Beth Lindstrom, Peter Flaherty, Eric Fehrnstrom (texting away even as Brown delivered his victory speech), and of course the former governor himself, taking a victory lap in front of a national audience of cable-watching conservatives (and potential 2012 primary voters).

Watching them, it occurred to me that the same group spent most of 2007 traipsing across Iowa, having built the Romney strategy around winning that state’s caucuses; and that during that time they may have picked up a lesson or two from watching another campaign that bet heavily on Iowa: Barack Obama’s.

As that campaign’s manager David Plouffe describes in The Audacity to Win, Obama’s strategists knew from the start that they could not beat Hillary Clinton among the people who normally participate in caucuses. Thus, they had to expand the playing field—greatly increase the number (and type) of participants, so that the people who don’t normally vote would overwhelm the regulars.

Brown faced the same dilemma. It was widely accepted that turnout for the special election would be no more than 30 percent, or 1.2 million people—and that number would include more than 600,000 who had already voted in the Democratic primary. The math isn’t difficult.

If you like poker analogies, Coakley had a winning five-card hand, so Brown decided to make it a seven-card game.

He did this (not entirely unlike Obama) by appealing broadly to those who are disaffected, discouraged and just generally annoyed with government and politics. Those people don’t typically vote, and certainly not in a special election. But Brown made them feel that they were a part of something that would strike a dagger at complacent, arrogant, corrupt politicians, and it turned out that people were ready to join that cause. In the end, more than a million people voted for Brown; more than enough to flood the Democratic base.

The time and place could hardly have been riper for a collective rage against the political machine. State politics has become, to most citizens of the commonwealth, a parade of fools: Sal DiMasi, Dianne Wilkerson, Jim Marzilli, Marian Walsh, Anthony Galluccio and the endless Deval Patrick blooper reel.

Meanwhile, Washington Democrats, freed from the infuriating gridlock of bipartisan government, have introduced the tragicomic gridlock of single-party government.

Perhaps the most important moment in this Senate campaign came one month ago, 10 days after the primary—when Senate leadership finally passed health-care legislation by essentially paying off Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson for his agreement to cast the deciding 60th vote.

Brown denounced the deal and the backroom, corrupt politics it represented. Coakley, who had previously been aghast at the anti-abortion compromise that secured passage in the House, praised the Senate for its work.

For the generally conservative, largely Catholic “Finneran Democrats” of Massachusetts, the message was clear: Coakley condemns those who seek to save life and embraces those who cheat the taxpayer.

Republicans close to the campaign almost immediately began pointing to the crystallizing effect of that development; I never heard a single Democratic insider express awareness that it was even an issue, up to and including last night at the dour Coakley election gathering at the Copley Sheraton.

Selling Brown—a wealthy lawyer who has held political office for the past 18 years—as the champion of that populist, anti-politician cause may seem a stretch, but again, his strategists were the people responsible for the packaging and marketing of Willard Mitt Romney.

They did their job with Brown brilliantly, turning the well-to-do political hack suburbanite into a pickup- driving man of the people. And Brown, like Romney, is an outstanding candidate: disciplined, hard-working, and malleable.

The team was also prepared, from the training of the presidential campaign, to rapidly turn everything the Coakley campaign did to their advantage—and the campaign repeatedly played right into their hands.

When she failed to actively barnstorm the state—and later, when she derided the notion of shaking voters’ hands in front of Fenway Park—they painted her as arrogant and out-of-touch. When she launched the campaign’s first negative ad, they called her out for playing the politics of destruction. When she went to Washington to raise money, they labeled her a tool of the lobbyists and special interests. When she called in the help of prominent local and national Democrats, they called it machine politics. (Those insisting that Michael Capuano would have beaten Brown handily should consider how easy it would have been to caricature him as an insider, backroom, Democratic-machine, professional pol.)

By keeping the focus firmly on these symbols of dark politics, the Brown campaign defined the race around mood, rather than issues.

Although the national audience, and the core supporters packing the Park Plaza ballroom, care deeply about the issues, Brown nimbly straddled them in the campaign, to avoid alienating any potential mood voters (again, not unlike Obama).

He was against overturning Roe v. Wade, but for any pro-life law that might actually come before him in a Senate vote. He vowed to vote against the current health-care-reform bill, but professed support for legislating universal coverage. He demanded a reduction in the national deficit, but offered no cost-reduction plans. He opposed whatever economy-boosting measures the Obama administration has taken, but proposed none of his own other than an across-the-board tax cut that nobody believes would ever be seriously considered. (He took an unequivocal stand on just one issue, a Bush/Cheney approach to terrorism, including escalation of the war in Afghanistan, denial of rights to detainees, and use of torture, including waterboarding. I would guess that their polling showed Coakley was vulnerable on this front.)

Coakley’s team, just like Clinton’s in Iowa, never saw this strategy coming until too late. Neither did the Democratic operatives who were denigrating the Coakley team yesterday—even as they tried to pull her lifeless campaign over the finish line.

I didn’t see it coming, either; I would never have believed that turnout would exceed 50 percent on a miserable, wet day in January. But in retrospect, the strategy was all there right from the beginning, laid out in the announcement speech he made four months ago.

In that speech, Brown declared himself independent of “the special interests [and] the Beacon Hill establishment”; called himself “a political outsider . . . not part of the Beacon Hill insider club”; denounced “Washington politicians who think they know better than us what’s good for Massachusetts”; promised not to take orders from “the Washington insiders, or from Harry Reid, or Deval Patrick”; and warned that “power concentrated in the hands of one political party, as it is here in Massachusetts, leads to bad government and poor decisions.”

Brown diligently took that message across the state in his iconic pick-up truck, to towns and audiences that any seasoned pollster would declare a waste of time and gasoline. People said the same thing about Obama reaching out to twentysomethings and independents in Iowa.

And his message barely changed from that speech to the one he delivered in victory at the Park Plaza. Both included his signature line: “This Senate seat doesn’t belong to any one person, or political party.” It is the people’s seat, as the projected backdrop behind him on the Park Plaza stage read. Meanwhile, over at the Sheraton, that lesson had not yet sunk in; people there were already talking about which Democrat will retake the Senate seat when it comes back up for a vote in 2012.

First published by thePhoenix.com. For more coverage of the Brown/Coakley race, go to David S. Bernstein’s “Talking Politics” blog, at thePhoenix.com/TalkingPolitics.

Tea Party for the G.O.P.

Local conservative activists travel to Massachusetts for a compromise

By Chet Hardin

The man who conservative televangelist Glenn Beck refers to as “icky” and warns ought to be monitored won a surprising upset in Massachusetts this week in the special election to replace the Lion of the Senate. Beck’s distaste for the Senate’s newest member, Scott Brown, isn’t all that surprising. In fact, in a normal election, it’s hard to believe that Brown could garner the high-pitch of support he did from the right wing. For starters, Brown is a pro-choice professional politician and lawyer.

However, just as Brown’s 1980s naked spread in Cosmopolitan magazine has gone viral with the left-wing blogs, so has his reputation as a candidate of the Tea Party. And the Tea Party movement is happy to have him. Which is a surprisingly shrewd move, considering that the movement was supposedly born out of a righteous fury after a series of government bailouts among marginalized real conservatives. The kind of fiscal and moral conservative stalwarts who, by their accounts, had been left adrift by the GOP since the days of Bush Sr. and had lost faith in both parties.

“The Tea Party people showed that they can compromise. Sure, Scott Brown is more liberal than Dede Scozzafava [Republican assemblywoman and failed Congressional candidate in New York’s 23rd District],” says Kevin McCashion, a local Tea Party organizer and coordinator of the Sons of Liberty, an ad hoc conservative group until recently known as the Campaign for Liberty. “But the benefits outweighed the drawbacks insofar as they view him as the opposition to the filibuster-proof health care. Whether that is going to happen or not, who knows?”

This is what Brown was, a compromise who could win. And it was a win that Tea Partiers saw as vital on a number of fronts, including in their efforts to stop President Obama’s health-care reform. But possibly more important, Brown’s win was a chance to get a candidate elected who had adopted their “transpartisan” rhetoric.

“So that’s why you didn’t see the Republican logo anywhere on his Web site, or on his literature, and people noticed that,” McCashion says.

Roughly 30 to 40 Tea Partiers traveled from the Capital Region to Massachusetts Tuesday to rally support for Brown. They gathered afterward at Tess’ Lark Tavern in Albany to watch the results that they believe send a powerful message to Washington: Even a state that the Democrats believed was theirs to control is vulnerable.

“People want to believe, whether or not they are as familiar with the record as they ought to be. But definitely the passion and the energy is there,” McCashion says. “We are talking about people who weren’t involved in anything politically a year ago now doing multiple meetings multiple days of the week. Traveling three hours to go run around and help a campaign. Is the Republican establishment going to absorb the Tea Party movement? Or is the Tea Party going to co-opt the establishment? It’s still up in the air.”

As an organizer, McCashion can’t get too caught up on those details. He has his eyes set on upcoming elections, and he is working to keep the energy among his troops up: “The 20th is going to be the point of attack for us.”

chardin@metroland.net


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