Brown Win Gives Democrats Pause
WASHINGTON - Two weeks ago, Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley enjoyed a double-digit lead in polls, was raising an average of $24,000 a day in political contributions and had yet to put up a single campaign television ad.
In a matter of days, her front-runner status had collapsed. Suddenly, a little-known Republican state lawmaker, Scott Brown, had turned the contest for the Bay State's Senate seat - a seat that had been held by Edward Kennedy for 47 years - into a real race.
Massachusetts voters responded Tuesday by turning out to the polls in droves as snow fell across portions of the state, delivering an upset victory for Brown despite a 3-to-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration. The Associated Press called the race less than an hour and a half after polls closed.
Whether the abrupt shift in the dynamics of the campaign was based on the individual candidates or a broader, national resentment over the economy and President Obama's policies, the down-to-the-wire election has given Democrats pause as House and Senate lawmakers nationwide prepare to face voters in the fall election.
"This is about people who are angry," said Scott Harshbarger, a longtime Coakley supporter who served as the state's attorney general in the 1990s.
Coakley, 56, who became the first Democratic candidate to formally jump into the race, ran away with a four-way Dec. 8 primary, winning 47 percent of the vote. In a state that hadn't elected a Republican senator since 1972, many assumed at that point that Coakley had the general election locked up, Harshbarger said.
Brown, a 50-year-old triathlete and state senator, announced his candidacy with less fanfare in September, acknowledging that his party affiliation made him an underdog. Brown, who in 1982 was named "America's Sexiest Man" by Cosmopolitan magazine, used his 10 years as a lawmaker to focus on criminal justice and veterans' issues.
Both candidates faced a tight six-week timeline between the primary and general elections, but Coakley enjoyed a comfortable margin in most polls. A University of New Hampshire survey for The Boston Globe showed Coakley with a 17-percentage-point lead in early January.
Andrew Smith, the poll's director, said the timing of the election was one of the first things to go wrong for Coakley. "It was designed to be a low-turnout election, and I think that's backfired on the Democrats," he said.
One of the first signs Coakley faced trouble came when a Jan. 4 Rasmussen poll showed Coakley's lead had slipped to 9 points. The full scope of the shift to Brown wasn't clear until a poll a week later showed the race as dead even.
Suddenly, both campaigns were energized. As the national implications of the race and the impact on Obama's health care plan became more clear, third-party groups on both sides poured millions of dollars into the state. Both candidates began airing a blitz of television ads.
In an effort to shift the momentum, Obama visited the state on Sunday and Democrats put up a last-minute ad featuring video from the appearance.
Bill Doldt, a custodian in Wellesley, Mass., who did not vote for Obama in 2008, said he voted for Brown. The president's health care plan, he said, is "too expensive and has too much pork."
Despite the effort, some Democrats suggested Coakley's campaign was too slow to react.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he mobilized his get-out-the-vote forces for Coakley but wishes he could have done so sooner. "We weren't called to do anything until the polls got tight," he said.
McGovern says the Democrats were outworked. "Brown ran a good campaign," he said. "He was able to define her before she was able to define him."
Lawrence DiCara, a longtime Democratic politician in Massachusetts and former member of the Boston City Council, agreed that Coakley's campaign should have seen the race tightening sooner. He doesn't necessarily blame Coakley. "She ran a classic, front-runner strategy," he said.
Part of Brown's success was his ability to use his underdog status to his advantage, said Richard Tisei, the Republican minority leader in the state Senate. Brown drove a green pickup truck throughout the campaign and stood outside Fenway Park to shake hands at a recent Bruins game.
"He's a regular guy," Tisei said. "He is very engaging and he's very authentic."
Bruce Wallin, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University, said Brown gained traction by using the formula Republicans, including William Weld and Mitt Romney, used to win gubernatorial races from 1991 to 2003.
Part of it, he said, is simply likability.
"Their opponents ran bad campaigns and they were more likable," Wallin said of Brown and other successful Massachusetts Republicans. "The Coakley campaign was overconfident."