GOP Candidate Stuns Democrat In Massachusetts

Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. The result has major implications for congressional Democrats' bid to overhaul the nation's health care system.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

Tonight, a stunning upset in Massachusetts. Republican Scott Brown has won the Senate race to fill the seat of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Brown defeated the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, who had started the campaign with a double-digit lead in the polls.

And joining us now from a very jubilant Brown headquarters is NPR's Tovia Smith. Tovia, what's happening?

TOVIA SMITH: Well, a lot of people may be asking exactly that question: What exactly is happening here, given the way that we have all been surprised by this election. I think even the Republicans are stunned in this room where I am. No one expected this race to be close; out of nowhere, there's upset. Crowds have been cheering wildly here tonight that a Republican has won the seat that's been held by the Kennedys for - the senator before that, JFK, for more than 50 years. As one put it, the bluest of blue states is now brown town.

And of course, the way Republicans are explaining it is that this is a repudiation for President Obama's plan to overhaul health care. This is a state that's living with its own universal health care, which is still popular here. But I just spoke to former Governor Mitt Romney, who says that Massachusetts' plan is different than what he called Obama care because it doesn't cut Medicare and it doesn't raise taxes. And he says voters wouldn't want the president's version of it. And I have to say, I did hear a lot of that at the polls today, voters who favored standing coverage who say they feared the price tag of the president's plan.

BLOCK: Well, apart from that issue of health care, Tovia, what do you think tipped this campaign? What chipped away at that double-digit lead that Martha Coakley had going in and that made a lot of Democrats, apparently, quite complacent about how this race would come out?

SMITH: Well, you know, the campaign has been on the defensive for a while now about many of the things that they - the way that they ran the campaign. There was a sense that she was very passive, almost as if she felt it was kind of automatic; it was hers. Many voters say they got the sense that she felt entitled to the seat. It was one of the most memorable lines in the campaign -was how Brown said, it's not Kennedy's seat, it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat.

And the Democrats, it's hard to counter that, even employing Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, to reinforce that even Senator Kennedy thought it was the people's seat. But apparently, the damage was done.

And I believe, also, part of it had to do with her style, you know? She wasn't widely an appealing personality on the campaign trail, if you will. I think that was part of it.

BLOCK: And managed to do - commit the unpardonable sin of committing a gaffe in Red Sox nation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: She said during an interview that - she said Curt Schilling, who of course, was the famous Red Sox pitcher with bloody socks, who did so well for Red Sox nation, she said that he was a Yankees fan. And her campaign quickly said afterwards that it was just a joke. It was just a joke. But maybe that's part of the kind of stiff personality thing, that she did not pull off the joke in a way that people recognized as one.

BLOCK: Tovia, what do you think this result, again, with the Republican Scott Brown winning that Senate seat from Massachusetts, which has long been in Democratic hands, what does it say about the power and the inclinations of independent voters in Massachusetts, do you think?

SMITH: Well, that is the biggest voting bloc in Massachusetts; 51 percent of voters here are independent. People think that this is a heavily blue state. It is left-leaning, of course. But it is also majority independent, as I say. And I think a lot of people just broke for Scott Brown today, in part because I think there's some frustration with one-party rule here. Massachusetts has had an all-Democratic congressional delegation since 1997.

It's an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. There's been a series of scandalous indictments lately - speaker of the house here. I think there's some frustration with that, and people really wanted to see a Republican in high office here.

BLOCK: OK. Tovia, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tovia Smith at the victory party for Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Again, Scott Brown has defeated the Democrat, Martha Coakley, to take the seat held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

And of course, the Republican victory in Massachusetts means that the Democrats' 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is over. And this is expected to have vast implications. Joining us now to assess them is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, let's talk first about health care. Scott Brown has said he will be the Republican's 41st vote against health care. What does it mean for the health-care overhaul bill?

MARA LIASSON: Well, it means that they can't get it through the Senate with 60 votes, as they planned. And they are exploring a whole bunch of other options for passing this thing. I think the first question, before we get to just the tactical strategy for getting it through, is what does this election mean for health care? What was the message?

Now, the Republicans are saying it meant that the electorate has rejected Obama's health-care plan, and he needs to stop pushing it. I think the Democrats so far have decided that they've got to keep going with this, that to not pass their number one priority would be the equivalent of political suicide.

Now, once they decide that, then they have a bunch of - they have a limited group, a very - unpalatable options for pushing it through. The House could just accept the Senate bill in its entirety. That would be something that would make a lot of liberals in the House of Representatives very uncomfortable. And then they could hope that they could get the things that they negotiated in that conference that's been going on for a while, through on the budget. The budget only takes 51 votes. They could get the changes to the Cadillac tax on high-cost health-care plans passed that way. But that would be a pretty heavy lift.

Nancy Pelosi has said, we're going to get health care. She said right now, she doesn't like the idea of just accepting the Senate plan. But it's hard to imagine how else they can get it passed unless they're willing to go the reconciliation route, which means a parliamentary procedure where you pass it in the Senate with just 51 votes. I think that would be absolutely political kryptonite for the Democrats because they would be thumbing their nose, in effect, at the voters.

BLOCK: The nuclear option, maybe.

LIASSON: The nuclear option. I don't think they're thinking seriously about that. Everything I've heard about is trying to get it through, just having the House accept the Senate bill and make the changes on another legislative vehicle.

BLOCK: Mara, let's talk a bit more broadly. Besides health care, does this result, does this one loss of one seat from Massachusetts mean, ultimately, that the Obama administration has to move toward the center, has to get some Republicans on their side since they've lost their filibuster-proof majority, that super majority of 60 votes?

LIASSON: Well, as a practical matter, everything they do next year is going to have to get Republican votes if they don't have 60 votes in the Senate. And up until now, Republicans have been unified in their opposition to everything that Obama wants to do. I don't think you can overestimate the significance of this loss. As one Democrat said to me today, it's more than a wake-up call, it's a blow to the solar plexus.

And what - before we figure out what happens to different pieces of legislation, will this spook Democrats to the point where more of them will retire? Will more moderate Democrats rethink their support for the Obama agenda? Right now, the Democrats are in the circular firing squad phase of this, pointing fingers, blaming Martha Coakley, saying this was local issue, she did a terrible job, the worst case of political malpractice ever. But others are saying this was a referendum on Obama, on health care and on his very big, ambitious agenda.

One thing I think you'll see is a real retrenchment to the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs. You're not going to hear about too many other things from the White House this year. They were already planning on doing that. But I do think that this election drives that home. The people in Massachusetts, the bluest of all blue states, sent a message to Washington that it wasn't listening to them, and they want a focus on the economy.

BLOCK: OK, Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, again with the news tonight that Republican Scott Brown has defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts for the Senate seat held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

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