He didn’t win because of healthcare. He didn’t win because of Tea Parties. He won because of his campaign.
See also: What Scott Means For Mitt
To Sen. Scott Brown’s supporters—so, 52 percent of Massachusetts voters—the Republican’s Boston offices are located right where they should be: in the penthouse suite of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building. The building’s lobby is lined with faded pictures of the 35th president and the words of his 1961 inauguration address, which proclaims that the “torch has been passed to a new generation.” In just six weeks of campaigning during this year’s special election, Brown, an unheralded state senator, redefined the Kennedy legacy in such a way that he, a Republican, became its rightful heir.
The senator’s offices, which belonged to his predecessor—the late Sen. Edward Kennedy—take up most of the 24th floor and have large windows that, on a clear winter day, provide sweeping views of downtown and the Bay. The office is almost completely barren, both of furniture and of people. It is also remarkably blue; dated blue carpet lines the floor, vintage blue vinyl office chairs are almost the only furniture. The only objects of any other color are a new-looking red leather couch and the red peppermints in the candy dish of Beth Lindstrom, Brown’s campaign manager-turned-state director. (Lindstrom has since moved on to another campaign.)
For partisan Democrats—of whom there are plenty in Massachusetts—this entire scenario approaches blasphemy. It’s not just that the bluest seat in the bluest state now belongs to a Republican; it’s that the Democratic machine completely stalled when it should have cruised to victory. How, they wonder, did this ever happen? How did we let it happen?
With the help of a trio of presidential-race-grade consultants, Brown defined himself in his own terms and transformed his opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley—who had just won the Democratic primary by 19 points—from the second most popular pol in the state behind Ted Kennedy into its least popular. He overcame a three-to-one Democratic registration advantage and inspired nearly presidential level turnout. He proved it is possible to effectively manage the Tea Party movement’s anti-government fervor and embrace their wallets while avoiding the negative connotations of being labeled a “Tea Party candidate.” He showed that national security and terrorism can once again be an effective wedge issue for Republicans. In the process, he raised the most online money for a statewide campaign in history and became a national phenomenon.
“What was amazing was the velocity of Brown’s climb,” says veteran Massachusetts Democratic strategist Dan Payne. “He went from nowhere to an easy win in three weeks. The published polls also became self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s the kind of abrupt shift that happens only in presidential primaries.”
Here’s how he did it.
In the beginning, Scott Brown wasn’t the Republicans’ first choice. There were several other contenders with more experience considering the race. Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card was rumored to be interested, and he even showed up at a Republican state committee meeting for the first time in years. Kerry Healey, Mitt Romney’s lieutenant governor and the GOP’s 2006 gubernatorial nominee, was also floated as a possibility, as was former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan.
Despite being in the state legislature for more than 10 years, little was known about Brown among the general population. Politicos considered him highly ambitious, but he had few legislative accomplishments on which to build a campaign. “I don’t recall him taking leadership on any major initiatives,” says Michael Widmer, who, as the head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, keeps a very close eye on the state legislature. When asked what type of senator Brown will be, Widmer responds, “I’m as curious as anyone else as to how this will play out, what stands he will take.”
This was in large part because Brown was part of a tiny—five out of 40-member—Senate Republican caucus. Nevertheless, Brown’s thin legislative record led to one advantage when crafting his campaign message: He was a blank slate. A Massachusetts Republican operative who did not work for the campaign put it this way: Brown was a great candidate because he was good looking, extremely hard working, disciplined and coachable. In these respects, Brown reminded this operative of George W. Bush in his first presidential campaign.
What Brown did have was a record of electoral successes that had made him the longtime proverbial thorn in the side of Massachusetts Democrats. Brown won his state Senate seat, which was previously held by a Democrat, in a 2004 special election. The Democrats ran Angus McQuilken, an aide to the senator who vacated the seat, and the special election was scheduled on the same day as the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, when John Kerry was on the ballot. Despite Democrats turning out for their senator and there being no other Republican-drawing contest that day, Brown won.
In 2008, the Democrats funneled plenty of resources into psychologist Sara Orozco’s campaign against Brown. The race was one of the state party’s top priorities as it hoped to capitalize on the coming Democratic wave. On Election Day, the already miniscule Republican caucus in the state legislature shrank by three more seats. Scott Brown, however, won with 59 percent of the vote.
Soon after Kennedy passed away, Brown met with Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, the three principals of the Shawmut Group who are also known as Mitt Romney’s political brain trust. The trio has been with Romney since his tenure as Massachusetts’s governor and was at the helm of his 2008 presidential bid. They continue to work for his political action committee, and Fehrnstrom remains Romney’s primary spokesman.
(A little context on Fehrnstrom because if you don’t know him yet, you will if Romney runs in 2012: A former State House bureau chief for the Boston Herald, Fehrnstrom is generally regarded among Massachusetts Democrats as an evil genius—and they mean it respectfully. After his work as a journalist, he moved on to the ad agency Hill Holiday before eventually joining Romney’s administration. Among reporters, he is generally regarded as professional, fiercely loyal and willing to go to the mattress over a story he believes is unfair.)
The Shawmut Group consultants told Brown they saw a good opportunity for him even if he lost. There is a vacuum of credible statewide Republican candidates in Massachusetts, so the race could set him up nicely for another run in the future. “Running a good race,” Lindstrom, Brown’s campaign manager, says of the early objectives. “That was the mission: To run a positive campaign and to get Scott running statewide to develop him as a candidate.”
The consultants also told Brown that they saw potential in the polling out of the governors races in New Jersey and Virginia. In particular, they saw unrest among young independent voters. “With independents comprising more than 50 percent of voters in Massachusetts, we could catch lightning in a bottle,” Fehrnstrom says.
“That’s not to say we were looking at a 50-50 proposition,” he adds. “We knew it was the longest of long shots.”
Brown signed on with Shawmut and assembled a core team of advisers. In addition to Fehrnstrom, Flaherty, Myers and Lindstrom, he brought on Rob Willington, a former executive director of the Massachusetts GOP, to handle new media. Finally Peter Fullerton, a veteran field director from the Bush-Cheney campaigns, came on as political director. The team planned to operate on a skinny budget of
just $1.2 million. To run in a full-length statewide race in Massachusetts, campaigns usually spend at least $10 million. To save money, the campaign planned to forego polling entirely. It planned to efficiently utilize new campaign technologies to reach voters at low cost. The team also wanted to set aside between $450,000 and $500,000 to use on a modest media buy in the run up to Election Day. Even that proved hard to follow through on, though, as the campaign was forced to dole out $40,000 on radio ads in the primary when its opponent, Jack E. Robinson, went on the air.
There were reasons why, with this barebones plan, the team thought they could catch “lightning in a bottle” in Massachusetts. For one, Republican electoral successes in Massachusetts aren’t as rare of a phenomenon as the rest of the country tends to believe. There were Republican governors for 16 consecutive years, a streak that ended with Deval Patrick’s election in 2006.
On top of that, the anti-incumbent fervor that is now sweeping the country has been percolating in Massachusetts for several years. Simply put, Massachusetts voters don’t trust or like their elected officials. Approval ratings for the state legislature on Beacon Hill typically lie in the teens. Three speakers of the state House of Representatives have resigned in disgrace. In the last three years, three state senators have resigned: One because of a drunken hit and run, one for sexual harassment and another because she was caught—in photos taken by an undercover FBI agent—just steps from the state House allegedly shoving bribe money into her bra. (Yes, really.)
As a result, the successful statewide campaigns of both parties in Massachusetts are often outsider campaigns that challenge or pledge to reform the status quo (sound familiar?). Romney ran one. Patrick ran one. The mantle fit for Brown, who was a member of a tiny caucus that was constantly being trampled by the Democratic majorities.
“The anti-incumbent feeling has been growing here because of the Democratic monopoly,” says Todd Domke, a veteran Massachusetts Republican strategist. “We’ve had it here longer than in Washington. So this race was a two-for. Voters could vote against Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.”
It was clear from the beginning of the general election that Brown was going to have a tough time getting headlines. Two days after the primary, Brown held a press event at his campaign headquarters. One reporter showed up. He wrote a story about being the lone reporter there and the lack of interest in Brown’s candidacy.
Local media, like national media, considered the real race for the seat to be the Democratic primary and, now that that was done, the early days of the general election were getting very little play. This led to some tense conversations between the Brown campaign and the editors of the major dailies. “We thought, ‘something is going on here,’” says Fehrnstrom. “We knew this was going to be uphill but we didn’t think it would be that hard, now that he’s the nominee and the race is down to two people, to break into the news coverage.”
The news coverage overlooked a few of the Brown campaign’s strengths in these early stages. The first was that Brown is a relentless campaigner. If there were holes in his schedule, he would head out to an area of Boston and knock on doors. He was somewhat difficult to manage because he refused to leave an event until he met everyone. “We always knew that Scott needed to talk to as many voters as possible,” says Fullerton, the political director. “So retail politicking was big. And that was something you didn’t see Coakley do. Scott thrived on it. He loved it.”
In a stroke of stagecraft genius, Brown’s events often revolved around his shaking hands. This created the impression of accessibility and being of the people. It simultaneously allowed Brown to avoid making lengthy policy speeches, taking questions from reporters or saying much of anything on the record.
Brown’s team was also building a strong base through its use of technology. Willington, the new media director, was part of all the campaign’s major strategy decisions. “We needed to be innovative online in how we were running an insurgent campaign,” he says. “If we ran a traditional campaign, I think we could all expect what was going to happen.”
From his days in the state Senate, Brown had embraced social media. When Willington was executive director of the party, he advised all of the Republican members to build a Facebook presence and e-mail list. Brown was the only one who did. In fact, Brown started this race with thousands of Facebook friends and a sizable e-mail list. His first fundraising e-mail blast brought in a very respectable $80,000. And, just as Barack Obama had MyBarackObama.com, Willington created a Brown social network on Ning called the “Brown Brigade.”
Willington also used Twitter to reach out to activists, both locally and nationally. He viewed Twitter as a gateway to opinion makers and blogs. Early on he used the hashtag #MASEN, later he would also use #41STVOTE. Twitter, Willington says, “helped propel the importance of this race. It helped us get national.”
Additionally, the campaign used the latest in campaign phone technology: VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). By the end of the race, Kurt Luidhardt of the Prosper Group provided 210 Internet phones in six phone locations across the state, the same phones that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) used in Virginia last year. The phones had all voter information preloaded, so volunteers could dial with the push of a button and enter responses to questions on the phone. Over the course of the race, the average volunteer was able to make 70 calls per hour on the campaign’s voter ID script. All that information was then quickly and seamlessly integrated into the voter file.
None of this, says Luidhardt, who also built Brown’s website, was revolutionary, but it was all “done right.” “The campaign understood that there’s a reason why you call it ‘social’ media,” he says.
All of Brown’s infrastructure building and fundraising remained mostly under the radar—partly because the media wasn’t biting on Brown’s candidacy and partly because the campaign wanted it that way. At least through the middle of December, there was a concerted effort to keep things quiet so as not to fire up the Democratic machine in Massachusetts. “The Republican Party,” says Jeff Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University, “faked out the Democrats.”
According to people in Washington, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was skeptical of Brown’s candidacy. According to people in Massachusetts, the NRSC was completely uninterested. On December 16 and 17, the NRSC stepped lightly into the contest and polled the race.
The NRSC’s investment in the poll was small—just $10,000—and the survey’s sample size was only 300. Nevertheless, the poll showed very encouraging signs. On the initial ballot question, Brown trailed by 13 points, 50 to 37. The numbers deeper in the poll were more promising. Respondents were asked to rank their interest in the race on a scale of one to 10. Among those who answered 10, Brown only trailed by two points, 46 to 44. Among the 9s and 10s, he trailed by three.
Two days before Christmas—nearly a week after the poll—the NRSC called the Brown campaign and told them about the results. It was viewed as unbelievably good news among the Brown camp. The team still hadn’t conducted any polling and couldn’t tell if it was getting much traction. The NRSC poll showed that not only was Brown gaining ground, but the race was almost a dead heat.
Brown’s advisers wanted to do something to break the race open or, at least, get some headlines. Every attempt so far had failed because Coakley refused to respond to every jab Brown threw, squashing pretty much any media coverage. On December 27, the group met to discuss other options. One option stood above the rest: Going up on TV early. For it to work, they needed an ad that would generate controversy and get plenty of earned media. Otherwise, they would be wasting the media nest egg they were saving for the end of the campaign.
The campaign only had one ad in the can, and it was controversial. The spot opened with President John F. Kennedy discussing a proposal to cut taxes to spur the economy. As Kennedy speaks, his image morphs into Brown, who finishes the speech. The message of the ad was twofold. First, Brown, not Coakley, is more in line with the economic policies of JFK Democrats. Second—and more importantly—Brown, not Coakley, is the proper heir to the Kennedy legacy and Senate seat.
There was concern among the team that the ad would incite the Democratic backlash that they had been trying to avoid. There was also worry that a member of the Kennedy family would speak out against the ad. “There was a risk,” says Fehrnstrom. “But we felt that the biggest risk that a Republican could take running for office in Massachusetts is not take any risks at all.”
Taking this risk paid off. The ad got tons of coverage both in Massachusetts and on national cable. The ad ran for five days without any response from the Coakley camp. “They never answered,” says longtime Massachusetts Republican strategist Ron Kaufman, who was involved in the campaign. “It was kind of stunning.”
On January 5, Rasmussen released a poll that showed Brown trailing by 9 percent. The Brown campaign couldn’t stay under the radar anymore.
The race was on.
As things started to take off, Brown was in demand in the national media, much to the delight of the campaign. Brown would do a hit on Laura Ingraham’s radio show and immediately the campaign would see a $12,000 bump in fundraising online. He’d be a guest on “Hannity,” another $30,000 instantly online. Soon, the campaign was putting Brown on all the Fox News programming and conservative talk radio it could.
There is no question that Brown’s campaign benefited tremendously from the Senate race being the only election going on in the country at the time. This was especially true when it came to the Tea Party movement. Brown’s populist message certainly appealed to the Tea Party supporters, and as his potential victory would end the Democrats’ filibuster proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, Brown’s quest became a cause célèbre. But Brown was never a Tea Party candidate, like, say, Doug Hoffman was in upstate New York’s special election last year.
Kaufman explains Brown’s approach to the Tea Party this way: “It’s a movement, not an organization. There aren’t heads, it’s not like a party… Nobody is saying that he didn’t understand that movement because he tapped into it nicely. It was a big part of it, absolutely. But there isn’t any organization to it. The Democrats don’t get it. And I hope they never get it.”
Nowhere was Brown’s national appeal more apparent than in his fundraising. On January 11, the campaign ran a “money bomb” with the public goal of raising $500,000. The day before the campaign brought in more than $300,000, so it wasn’t very much of a reach. They ended up raising $1.2 million that Monday. It didn’t stop there. The next day, they raised $1.5 million. The next day: $1.7 million. The next: $1.5 million. They closed out the week with $2.2 million on Friday.
By the end of the campaign, they would raise $14.2 million in 19 days, most of it online. “We thought we had died and gone to heaven,” says Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, who polled the race for the NRSC.
Newhouse’s polling—by then the NRSC was funding a daily tracking poll—also showed that Brown’s issue matrix was resonating with voters. Specifically, terrorism and national security had become top issues among the electorate. This may be in part a result of three events that all occurred during the race. First, in October an alleged jihadist in Sudbury, Mass., was arrested for plotting to shoot up a shopping mall. Second, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his intentions to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, not in a military court. Finally, in December, there was the underwear bomber’s failed attempt to blow up a Northwest flight to Detroit.
Brown had credibility on the issue as a 30-year member of the National Guard, including his work as a JAG officer. Newhouse’s polling showed that national security mattered more to voters than healthcare, perhaps because the healthcare system had already been reformed in Massachusetts. When respondents were asked about Brown’s position on terrorists—that they should not receive constitutional rights and should be tried in military courts—Brown was favored over Coakley by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin.
“Healthcare moved people because of the intensity of the feeling that the opponents had,” Fehrnstrom says. “But in terms of a straight, or good old fashioned wedge issue, nothing came close to the national security issue for us.”
In the 48 hours after their final televised debate, Newhouse noticed a dramatic shift in Coakley’s numbers. Her general image—whether voters viewed her favorably or unfavorably—went from about plus 20 points on the positive side to dead even. When Newhouse asked voters whether what they had seen or heard about the Coakley campaign gave them a favorable or unfavorable impression of her, Coakley’s numbers went from positive two to minus 25.
“What I wrote in my tracking e-mail,” Newhouse recalls, "was, ‘Her campaign is imploding.’”
For all that Brown did right, he clearly benefited from what Coakley did wrong. At the beginning, her campaign strategy appeared to make sense—and it mirrored her campaign during the primary: Start with a bang, recede, close with a flurry. Coakley, who is a lawyer, also viewed the campaign through a rational lens. She wanted to raise enough money to cover all her media buys before airing any ads.
Early on there were signs of Democratic concern over her lax public campaign schedule. In the first three weeks of the race, Brown had the airwaves to himself.
Then came the gaffes. The Boston Globe ran a story in which Coakley rhetorically asked if she should be standing outside Fenway Park shaking hands. (Brown, coincidently, spent three hours outside Fenway during the Winter Classic outdoor hockey game.) She said that Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling was “just another Yankee fan,” which is sacrilege in New England. Finally, she went to a fundraiser in D.C. that was attended by lobbyists, further cementing the outsider-insider dynamic that the Brown campaign sought to establish.
In the final days of the campaign, Coakley’s team and national Democrats were in crisis mode. When they eventually got ads on the air, the spots came across as far too negative. Payne, the Boston media consultant, has seen data from focus groups conducted after the election. In those panels, he says, the ads aired by the DSCC did damage to Coakley. “Voters found the anti-Brown advertising—which they associate with Coakley even if it came from the state party or national Democrats—profoundly unfair,” he says. “Coakley paid the price.” In a column in the Boston Globe, Payne added that the ads “were so dark I wondered if someone had fiddled with the brightness control on my TV.”
Democrats did, however, cause some concern among Brown’s gang when, on the Friday before the election, President Obama announced he was making a visit. The move was risky, Brown’s advisers thought, because Brown was running—successfully so far—against the Democratic machine. Now, the Democrats were bringing in the machine’s boss. On stage with Coakley, there would be Obama flanked by the congressional delegation and Democratic leaders from Beacon Hill—all those cast as villains to Brown’s hero.
Even to some Democrats, bringing in the president illustrated the difference between how the campaigns perceived the electorate’s mood. “In the long run, politically Obama would have been better off to have not come in,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran Boston Democratic strategist. “He wouldn’t be able to rally Democrats enough, and it was going to remind unenrolled voters why they were angry.”
“There’s no question he would have been criticized if he hadn’t come,” she adds, “but in terms of a political calculation, it would have been better to have a few people upset at him than to anger the unenrolled voters, of which there are plenty here.”
The Brown camp decided to stage their own counter rally if for no other reason than so the newscasts would have tape of Brown to play next to tape of Obama. In two days, the Brown campaign organized the “People’s Rally” in Worcester, and they packed it in with 3,500 people.
Meanwhile, Brown’s team was spending money as quickly as it could, but not fast enough. Brown’s advisers actually wanted the contributions—which were coming from all corners of the country—to stop. Even with a robust Google surge strategy and buying all the airtime available on both radio and TV in three markets—Boston, Providence, R.I., and Albany, N.Y.—the campaign couldn’t get the money out the door fast enough. In the last weekend, $500,000 was put into newspaper ads, just because it was available. Brown still ended the race with $6 million in his bank account.
Does Scott Brown’s 52 percent to 47 percent victory over Martha Coakley represent the beginning of a tectonic shift in Massachusetts politics? Maybe. Democratic Reps. John Tierney, Niki Tsongas and Jim McGovern are polling lower than 40 percent when respondents are asked whether they deserve to be reelected. When Rep. Bill Delahunt (D) announced that he is not seeking reelection, a couple Republicans quickly jumped in the race to succeed him.
Massachusetts GOP Chair Jennifer Nassour says that since the election 80 people have expressed interest in running as Republicans for the state legislature, Congress or other positions. “Our candidates now have a message that they are comfortable with,” she says.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be any buyer’s remorse among the locals regarding Brown’s election—even if some in the Tea Party movement recoiled at the senator’s vote for a Democratic jobs bill. A Rasmussen poll released in the first week of March found that he has a 70 percent approval rating among Massachusetts voters.
Nationally, the consequences of Brown’s win are at best hazy and at worst confusing. Massachusetts has long been at the forefront of trends that sweep across the nation. It was among the first states to legalize same-sex marriage. It was the first to reform healthcare. Now, 237 years after the original Tea Party, Massachusetts has become home—somewhat paradoxically—of the Tea Party movement’s first electoral success.
Brown’s election, however, probably does not mean Tea Partiers have found a recipe for success they can replicate in multiple elections in 2010. Over the course of the race, Brown wisely avoided fully embracing the Tea Party when asked about it. In that same Rasmussen poll of Massachusetts voters, almost seven in 10 said they don’t consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement and a plurality held an unfavorable view of it.
Brown won because he and his team capitalized on local and national currents of anti-incumbent ferocity. The 2009 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia hinted at the same feelings, but Democrats missed the signals. There could be no greater indication that voters want something different than Massachusetts handing the hallowed “Kennedy seat” to a Republican. Early in the race, when Brown was just beginning to make inroads, Massachusetts Democrats told me—over and over again—that there is no way Massachusetts would turn over Jack and Teddy’s legacy to a Republican, especially while the Senate was enmeshed in healthcare reform—something Ted Kennedy considered his life’s work.
“The Democratic mythology was self-defeating,” says Domke, the Republican strategist. “Since liberal Democrats here and in D.C. believed in the Kennedy monarchy—that the family was considered political royalty by nearly all voters—they couldn’t grasp the idea that voters could actually vote for a Republican to fill ‘the Kennedy seat.’”
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer for Politics Magazine.