A Watershed Senate Race: How Scott Brown Did It

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It's Brown.

The signs, the hints, they've been coming for a week now, two at most. The first Rasmussen poll showing Republican Scott Brown within single digits of Democrat Martha Coakley, and holding a huge lead among independents. The explanations in advance about the listless campaign run by Coakley. The statement by interim appointee Paul Kirk (D) saying that even if Brown won, he would still vote for the health-care bill. The fact that, when asked, people genuinely didn't know who was going to win, in Massachusetts of all places. That's when we knew something was up.

By the time Democrats saw what was happening, it was too late. President Obama, realizing that a Coakley defeat would be interpreted as a referendum on his presidency — not to mention it would end the Democrats' 60-vote supermajority in the Senate — made a last-minute decision to come to Boston and help rally the troops, just as Bill Clinton did a few days earlier. The national party flooded the commonwealth with money and manpower. There were countless appeals to "win it for Ted" — Ted being the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who held the seat for nearly 47 years until his death last August, and who made overhauling the nation's health-care system his cause.

In the end, it wasn't nearly enough. Brown, a heretofore little known state senator, scored one of the biggest upsets in campaign history with a convincing 52-47 percent victory over Coakley, the state attorney general who just a few weeks ago had a commanding double-digit lead.

This was the entire text of an email message I received last night: "Choakley."

It was the first time a Republican won a Senate race in Massachusetts since 1972. And it was the first time a Republican took a Senate seat away from a Massachusetts Democrat since 1946.

But more important, it gives the Republicans a 41st senator — ending the Democrats' super-majority of 60 and their ability to fight off a GOP filibuster. On issues like, say, health care.

There will be many interpretations of why Brown won (and, conversely, why Coakley lost). He was an inspiring campaigner, she was not. He never stopped running, she took a long nap after winning the Dec. 8 Democratic primary. He stood up against the health care bill being pushed by the Obama administration, while she — in the face of polls showing voters (even in Mass.) were wary of the legislation, if not downright suspicious and hostile — supported it. He talked of independence from his own party leaders. She tied herself to the president and Congress.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of his swearing in, it's pretty remarkable to see how far the president has fallen, at least with his job approval numbers. Once, there was the perception that nothing could keep Obama and the Democrats from getting what they wanted. Back then, the Republicans were clueless and rudderless, defined and dismissed as the party of Cheney, Gingrich and Limbaugh. But since the summer, after the anger exhibited at town hall meetings and the rise of the Tea Party activists, the GOP seems to have recovered its footing. Republicans swept the two Democratic-controlled governorships at stake in the November elections. Obama continued to sink in the polls, going from a lofty 65 percent approval rating to one now teetering at 50 percent. And to top it all off, his candidate for the Senate in the overwhelmingly blue state of Massachusetts was defeated. A stunning blow, and embarrassment, to the White House.

Once, having 59 seats would have been a godsend to a majority party in the Senate. In these times, however, it's not enough. Especially with a Republican Party united in opposition to measures such as health care (though, to be honest, nearly everything). And especially when, even with 60 nominal votes among Democrats and two independents-who-vote-with-the-Dems, there were key differences that exposed many fault lines.

So where are we with health care?

Although there is no controversy surrounding Brown's victory, his swearing-in could still take up to 15 days. And, coincidence or not, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday that health care could pass Congress in, wow, 15 days.

But for all the conspiracy theorists out there waiting to pounce, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed GOP concerns about delaying making the results official:

The people of Massachusetts have spoken. We welcome Scott Brown to the Senate and will move to seat him as soon as the proper paperwork has been received.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, said he would notify the Senate on Wednesday that Brown had been elected.

Even if Democrats were able to delay swearing in Brown for two weeks or so, there's no guarantee congressional Democrats would have or could have acted on health care. In fact, the odds were against it.

Obama has made it clear that he views overhauling the nation's health care system his top priority. He has said the status quo is unacceptable. He has spoken before joint sessions of Congress, and held prime-time news conferences. And so some thought that the potential of a Scott Brown victory would get congressional Democrats on the same page.

Apparently there were too many differences. Many House Democrats hate the version passed by their Senate brethren, with its higher taxes and lack of public option. Pro-choice House Democrats have insisted that they can't vote for a bill that includes the anti-abortion language pushed through by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), and pro-life House Democrats say that they can't vote for a bill if such language is stripped.

Some Democrats are now saying that there have been so many deals made, so many concessions offered, that the bill is essentially weak and therefore everyone should start over. That sounds like the ultimate nightmare, especially for Democrats who have cajoled and bartered (and bought?) votes these past how many months and still have yet to pass it.

Back in 2001, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the GOP to become an independent. In doing so, he shifted a Republican-controlled Senate — at the time it was 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney as the tie-breaking vote — into one run by the Democrats. That was pretty dramatic stuff. (See my Political Junkie column at the time, when it ran on the Washington Post Web site.) It upended everything in Washington.

The Massachusetts result could bring similar upheaval. Yes, the Democrats wil still have a huge majority in the Senate: 59 seats. But with a united GOP opposition, it might not be enough. And even if health care passes — say they keep Kirk in the post long enough to get a vote — the rest of the Obama agenda could be in serious jeopardy.

Brown faces the voters again in 2012, and Democrats are already talking about getting a "better" candidate to run against him. But for now, they are dejected, and demoralized. And with good reason.

Happy anniversary, President Obama.

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