Post Election Analysis – January 19, 2010

While looking for something else on my computer, I came across this article I wrote back in January 2010 in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s election to the United States Senate. In the aftermath of Brown’s defeat this past Tuesday, I thought it might be worth a trip down memory lane to recall the circumstances around his earlier victory, at least as I saw them:

After the Coakley rally in Lowell on Saturday night, it seemed that Brown’s momentum had been checked and that he may have peaked too soon but that was clearly not the case. As anyone who has run a road race knows, when you commence your finishing kick to overtake the guy in front of you, that guy sometimes has a kick of his own and though you catch up momentarily, he quickly surges back into the lead and bolts across the finish line far in front of you. That’s what happened in this election.

Now that it’s over and Scott Brown is our new senator from Massachusetts, it’s time to talk about why things happened as they did. Certainly Brown ran a near flawless campaign and caught the imagination and the hopes of a wide-range of Massachusetts voters in a way no one – including Brown, I presume – could have foreseen back in early December. Here are some of the factors that I see contributing to Coakley’s defeat:

To the extent Republican candidates have been successful in Massachusetts, it’s been in statewide races. In gubernatorial elections, Weld beat Silber, Cellucci beat Harshbarger, and Romney beat O’Brien. In US Senate races, Romney gave Ted Kennedy a scare in 1994 and Bill Weld nearly defeated John Kerry in 1996. For whatever reason, when Massachusetts voters get angry enough to enact change via the ballot box, they seem to think “statewide” rather than “state rep.”

That said, I don’t see this as a Republican victory as much as it’s a populist revolt against the party in power. As Pete-in-Lowell wrote in response to a recent post,

Scott Brown’s momentum is not only a tribute to his abilities but to how smoothly things can go without heavy involvement from party machinery. I don’t think he’d be in this position if he had the full-throated support of the GOP from the outset.

Many of those who streamed to the polls in record numbers were ordinary citizens not obsessed with politics. They’re mostly unenrolled and two Novembers ago, they mostly voted for Barack Obama and his promise of change. Instead of change, however, they’ve been bombarded with endless headlines about the obscene bonuses now being paid to the very same bankers who are most responsible for causing the recession. Wall Street gets bailed out and rewarded, but the homeowner who is underwater on his mortgage gets nothing. No wonder everyone is so angry. No wonder they again voted against the party in power (even though it’s the party they voted for just 14 months ago).

Then there’s health care reform. The old saying “there are two things you never want to watch: the making of sausage and the making of legislation” was never more applicable than it is to the current health care reform efforts in Congress. Obama’s strategy seemed to be to get anything possible passed now as a kind of foot-in-the-door first step, and then the rest would fall into place later. In the process, deals were made with individual Senators, drug companies, insurance companies and unions. And the benefits to the average person (the same one frustrated by the bank bailout) were never described well or persuasively.

Two factors unique to this race made health care a particularly potent issue. First, the election is now, right in the midst of the ugliest part of the legislative process. If there had been no Senate special election here and Congress enacts something soon, its proponents will have the rest of the year to promote its benefits and perhaps win over some skeptical voters. The second problem is that the Senate race is in Massachusetts where we already have pretty good health insurance. Many I’ve talked to were suspicious that our costs will go up and our care will worsen as we subsidize the rest of the country.

In general, the approach to governing used by both President Obama and Governor Patrick played a role in this election, not to mention in their own sagging popularity. Both see compromise and incremental change as the surest path to reform. In the legal profession, it’s said that you can’t gain the best settlement for your client unless the other side is convinced that you’re ready to go to trial. If your goal is settlement at all costs, you end up with a lousy settlement. The same is true when it comes to legislation. If Obama and Patrick took the fight for the things they hope to accomplish directly to the public earlier in the process, the substantial discontent that exists now might not have materialized.

Speaking of legislation, many of the random Brown supporters I heard from included “we need to shake things up on Beacon Hill” in their reasons for voting Republican. The collective impact of Sal DiMasi’s indictment, Tom Finneran’s disbarment, Anthony Gallucio’s probation revocation and James Marzilli’s conviction can’t be discounted. Neither did the voters ignore the change the legislature made to the method of filling a vacant US Senate seat (allowing the governor to appoint an interim Senator until the special election) after the death of Ted Kennedy, a procedural change voters may have resented. And that change is on top of the previous change in 2004 when the state legislature stripped the governor of the power to make an appointment to a Senate vacancy when it appeared that John Kerry was about to be elected president. It’s supreme irony that had they left the law as it was, Deval Patrick would have been able to appoint someone to fill Kennedy’s vacancy at least until next fall’s regular state election.

Even the special election process worked against the Democrats whose most reliable voters – urban residents – may have already spent their energy in hard-fought municipal elections in November while more conservative suburban voters hadn’t been to the polls since last spring.

Then there’s Martha Coakley and her campaign. Events since the primary certainly corroborate the old saying that there are only two ways to run: scared and unopposed. But blaming Coakley and her campaign would be a mistake. This was not just a tactical victory by Brown; it was one of those electoral tidal waves that periodically upend the political status quo. Democrats who blame the outcome on the candidate just ignore strategic weaknesses and set themselves up for more defeats down the road.

Still, even Coakley herself would probably agree that she could have run a better campaign. While it’s true that she has run statewide before, it was never in a contested race. When Tom Reilly left the Attorney General’s office in 2006 to run for governor, Coakley ran for AG and had no opponent in the primary or in the general election. Her only contested race was when she was elected Middlesex District Attorney back in 1998 when she defeated Michael Sullivan and Tim Flaherty in the primary and Lee Johnson in the general.

Finally, there was one thing about this election that I thought demonstrated the double standard applied to female candidates. A woman who had posed nude in a national magazine centerfold earlier in life would not be elected to the planning board, never mind US Senator. Yet when a male candidate has that in his background, as Scott Brown did, it barely was mentioned and it clearly didn’t hurt him with the voters.