UPDATED BELOW: After two cups of coffee and two Aleves, I'm still trying to wrap my head around what happened last night in Massachusetts when all I thought I knew about Bay State politics from covering the state in the 2008 cycle imploded. Republican state Sen. Scott Brown's improbable five-point win over Attorney General Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat was shocking on many levels. Here are my initial musings on what happened and why.
The First Tea Party Senator? – To steal the headline from Mark Leibovich's New York Times Magazine story on Marco Rubio in Florida, Brown is the first major electoral win for the loosely affiliated group of Tea Party activists. And it is already being portrayed that way. This makes sense because Brown received a lot of money from this movement - as evidenced by this fundraiser - despite his attempts to distance himself from the movement in public statements.
That isn't to say that Brown ran a dishonest campaign. It was shocking to see how much traction Brown was getting. When I moved to the Bay State to cover Massachusetts politics in 2008, the first thing I would ask people was if there was a Republican who could win statewide. Brown's name rarely came up. Charlie Baker, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, was always at the top of the list. Brown was often mentioned as highly ambitious, but no one thought he could win statewide. And let's not forget that Brown was the GOP's last choice to run for this seat. Remember when he said he wouldn't run if Andy Card was interested?
A Recipe For Republican Success in Massachusetts – As I wrote yesterday in a preview of the race, Brown's path to victory was somewhat narrow – as it is for any Republican statewide in Massachusetts. Brown executed that strategy to the letter. Just look at the map. He won the Boston suburbs and nearly all of the I-495 corridor. He beat Coakley 62 percent to 37 percent in Chelmsford, a classic Republican bellwether. Fitchburg and Peabody, two more swing towns, Brown won by 19 points in each.
Brown's campaign was guided by strategists with a record of success in Massachusetts – mainly Mitt Romney's team. Three members of Romney's presidential campaign team – Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty – were calling the shots for Brown, as was his longtime right hand man, Greg Casey.
In addition to the geography of his win, Brown also carefully appealed to unenrolled voters and Democrats. He never called himself a Republican. His "every man" image didn't offend anyone and, for the most part, he didn't rile anyone up by running an angry campaign. He ran an outsiders campaign.
Be Careful Comparing Massachusetts to the Rest of the Country – Take the national Republican spin that Brown's win shows a deep distrust of the Democrats agenda in Washington with a grain of salt. Part of it is true – there is certainly an anti-establishment vibe out there, but it is unclear yet if it is anti-Democratic. More, the anti-establishment sentiment is heightened in Massachusetts. Bay State voters have an extremely sour view of their elected officials on Beacon Hill. Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) numbers are in the toilet. The opinion of the state legislature is even lower because of numerous scandals (see: Wilkerson, Dianne and DiMasi, Salvatore). Massachusetts voters are more receptive to anti-establishment candidates. Patrick ran as one. Romney ran as one when he ran for governor. Now Brown has run as one.
The Fall of Martha Coakley – One question that so far isn't getting much attention is whether this is the end of Coakley's political career. When this race began Coakley had everything going for her. She had run statewide and won big in 2006. She had approval ratings in the 70s. She was wildly popular among the Democratic establishment. She was seen as the Democrats next sure thing statewide candidate and looked like she would capitalize on a strong desire among Massachusetts women to elect a woman statewide. She had her campaign team in place before the race began and cruised in the Democratic primary. She wasn't just the favored Democrat in Massachusetts; she was the best Democratic candidate in Massachusetts. If you want to compare her to another politician, Dick Blumenthal, the Democrat running for Chris Dodd's Senate seat in Connecticut, comes to mind.
Democratic Pandemonium – That, of course, raises the question of what went wrong in Coakley's campaign. At this point, it is hard to say. What became abundantly clear yesterday, however, is that Democratic finger pointing may have reached an all time high. Coakley's team was blaming national Democrats and national Democrats – including the White House! - were blaming Coakley hours before the polls closed. This goes beyond political malpractice. It is almost inconceivable. If the 2006 and 2008 cycles made you forget how disorganized, undisciplined and, ultimately, unsuccessful the Democratic campaign structure can be, yesterday should have been a wake up call.
Is Bush Still Relevant? – A Republican winning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts may be a sign that the GOP brand is rebounding in a big way. Part of the reason for that may be because voters increasingly view George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as irrelevant. If this is what is happening, Democrats desperately need some new attack lines. This is the statement that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) sent out last night:
"President George W. Bush and House Republicans drove our economy into a ditch and tried to run away from the accident. President Obama and congressional Democrats have been focused repairing the damage to our economy.
"Elections are about choices and this year’s Midterms will be a choice between continuing the economic progress and independent leadership that House Democrats are delivering for their districts versus Republicans who are eager to turn back the clock to the same failed Bush-Cheney policies that brought our economy to the brink of collapse."
UPDATE, 3:15 PM: Here's a statistic that Republicans are gleefully pulling out of last night's vote: Scott Brown may have carried a a majority of the congressional districts in Massachusetts, according to a Republican source with knowledge of the data. Brown won at least five of the Bay State's 10 districts, all of which are now represented by Democrats, the GOP analysis says. Brown may have also carried two additional districts, but they aren't sure because the two districts have towns that split between districts.
2nd District, which is held by Richard Neal
3rd District, which is held by Jim McGovern
5th District, which is held by Niki Tsongas
6th District; which is held by John Tierney
10th District, which is held by William Delahunt
Brown was also close to carrying Barney Frank's 4th District and Stephen Lynch's 9th, according to the analysis.
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics. In 2008, he covered Massachusetts politics for PolitickerMA.com. He can be reached at email@example.com