In the coming days, as they have in the last moments of the campaign to elect someone to fill Daniel Webster’s Senate seat, many Democrats will dismiss the election of a Republican in a state which hasn’t elected a Republican to federal office since before the president won his first election as an aberration, the consequence of a weak candidate running a poor campaign.
But, before they dismiss this good woman, they should recall that, in a Democratic state not normally friendly to women statewide, she rose to political power rather quickly and easily secured her party’s nomination to succeed Ted Kennedy. She was running a smart campaign until she, like everyone, including most right-of-center pundits, became aware of the power of the Brown juggernaut.
We all give Barack Obama’s for running a great presidential campaign back in ’08, but even he was caught off-guard by McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. It took an economic crisis for that Democrat to right the listing vessel his campaign had become in early September. Had it not been for the mortgage meltdown, Obama may have limped his way to November, handing the White House to the GOP for another four years.
There were 17 days between McCain’s announcement of his running mate and the collapse of Lehman Brothers and 15 between the first sign that Democrats should not take the Massachusetts race for granted and Election Day. And, in some ways, fewer than that; it took the Democrats a few days to realize the significance of the January 4 Rasmussen poll showing Brown within striking distance. Perhaps, their delay in realizing the survey’s significance was due to their party’s prejudice against that pollster (as Politico reported just days before the release of that milestone survey).
She had once led by 30 points and even after the new year, other polls still showed her up by comfortable margins.
When it sunk in that they had a race on their hand, Martha Coakley or her campaign aides, more likely the latter, panicked. They were unprepared for a competitive race. So, unable to come up with a strategy, they pulled the standard bromides out of their bag of tricks. Blame Bush! Bring in Palin! Call the challenger an opponent of change! They didn’t have time to consider how the electoral landscape had shifted since Obama’s election, particularly in the only state McGovern won in 1972, where a Republican hadn’t gotten more than 38% of the vote in a statewide fedearal election since the president’s first year in law school.
Would another candidate have reacted any differently? Would he have panicked as well? Was Martha Coakley’s panic in January 2010 any different from Barack Obama’s in September 2008?
Recall that Massachusetts is not a swing state; it was smart strategy for a Democrat to lay low while most people were celebrating the holidays. Recall, that when the holidays began, she led Brown in the polls by a margin greater than 2 to 1.
Had this been Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio,Virginia or even Wisconsin, a Democrat would have no excuse for taking a Senate race for granted. But, here, most people considered the Democratic primary the de facto election, with the general just a formality. After all, it had been that way in Massachusetts in well over 70 federal elections over the the past 14 years.
Scott Brown’s victory in the Bay State is not just a repudiation of Martha Coakley. She had made none of her famous gaffes before that Rasmussen poll. She was fighting against forces she herself couldn’t control, similar to the forces which saw Republicans like Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith lose to men far lesser than themselves.
Voters even in Massachusetts were upset by Democrats trying to pass health care behind closed doors, buying off Senators from other states despite the transparency Obama promised in his campaign. Indeed, Rasmussen found that health care was “a huge issue in this election“, with 78% of Brown voters strongly opposing the health care legislation before Congress.
In a swing state, perhaps, one could attribute a Democrat’s loss to an inept candidate alone, but when it happens in Massachusetts when you see a novice* Republican candidate run 16 points ahead of his party’s presidential nominee, something is going on.
Democrats would be wise to pay attention. The political landscape has shifted and a good woman with a fine education found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*in the sense that he was new to voters statewide