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Did Martha Coakley lose or did Scott Brown win?

Opinion | February 10, 2010

It is hard for many to believe that “’Ted Kennedy’s Seat”’ could be lost to a Republican. But it wasn’t Ted Kennedy running—he would have sailed to an easy victory. It was Martha Coakley. That wasn’t the only thing that won the day for Scott Brown, A81. He ran an excellent campaign, which allowed him to control his political branding and appeal directly to independent voters. National mood is also a factor;: by winning control on a national level, voters are expecting Democrats to deliver on their promises, which they have so far failed to do.

Martha Coakley was probably her own worst enemy. She can run a successful political campaign, winning the four-way democratic primary. However, she assumed that the seat was hers after the primary. Think of it as “’pulling a Hillary”’–except that unlike Hillary, Coakley didn’t have the drive and eloquence to close it. Instead she went on vacation and flubbed about the Red Sox. In any other year that may not have sunk her entire campaign; Massachusetts hadn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in 29 years.  And if she had been up against an equally unexciting Republican challenger, she still could have won. Unfortunately, she was running against Scott Brown.

Scott Brown and his campaign as a whole was the second major factor in his victory. Mr. Brown appealed directly to independent voters, by far the largest voting block in any state. His campaign ads hadn’t mentioned the ‘hot button’ social conservative themes many Republicans endorse. Instead, he focused on the economy with themes such as job creation while playing up his local roots and strong work ethic. His campaign website reads more like that of a blue dog Democrat than a red state Republican—he shies away from gay marriage and focuses on “’abortion reduction’,” not banning abortion altogether. He also distanced himself from the Republican Party as a whole, emphasizing at every turn that he is a “’peoples candidate,” in an attempt to raise himself above the all too pervasive partisan bickering in Washington. This message proved potent for a well-organized campaign with an energized base, a strong field campaign and effective use of netroots. In fact, if you drop Brown’s politics and message, his campaign is an heir to Obama’s.

Another factor whose impact is hard to determine is the effect of the health care debate. Voters on both sides of the aisle are weary of the drawn-out fight for or against reform. Wouldn’t they be even more weary when they already have universal healthcare in their own state?

The final element of the Scott Brown victory was the 2008 Democratic sweep. By attaining the strongest Senate majority that any party has held since 1977, when the Democrats held 61 seats, the Democrats will be held accountable to voters. When healthcare is delayed and watered down, when unemployment stands at 10% and rising and when we are still bogged down in Afghanistan—the same exact factors that won 2008 for the Democrats in the first place—the Democrats themselves will get blamed. Not that this is necessarily fair; some would argue that these are huge problems that cannot be solved easily and are the direct product of the Bush years. Either way, the majority party almost always loses seats in an off year election, and this year will be no different. In fact, —it will probably be worse.

Simply put, Mr. Brown’s victory was threefold: Democrats weren’t terribly excited about Coakley, Republicans were exceptionally excited about Brown and independents were turned off by national Democrats, and Coakley’s campaign, with her flubbing and apparent lack of interest, was self-destructive.