Sen. Scott Brown’s loss was painful for state Republicans. Some blame a “Democratic machine” and others blame the electorate, but defeatism just produces more defeats.
When a political party has a setback like this, it’s important to draw the right lessons. Otherwise, it’s difficult to recruit good candidates and create effective campaigns.
Brown was a strong candidate and he waged a well-funded, energetic campaign. But it wasn’t just a Democratic machine that beat him. He and his advisers made decisions that proved to be costly. It’s easy to find fault with strategy and tactics after an election, but here are some of the mistakes pointed out in analysis while the campaign was going on:
Alliance With Mitt Romney
It was obvious for years that Romney was unpopular in Massachusetts. That’s why Romney stayed out of the special senate campaign for Brown, only helping discreetly with fundraising and staff. However, at Brown’s victory party in that special election, when TV cameras were set to broadcast his remarks to the world, Romney flew in to make the introduction of Brown. He didn’t just bask in Brown’s reflected glory; he was there to take credit as a mentor and ally.
Brown had reason to be grateful to Romney, but he put his loyalty to him above his promise to be independent. For example, Brown endorsed him for president even before Romney announced his candidacy.
Yet was it not obvious that Brown and Romney would need to distance themselves from each other? Brown’s strategist should have known he couldn’t win reelection in 2012 as a Romney Republican, and Romney’s strategist should have known he couldn’t win GOP presidential primaries if seen as a Massachusetts moderate mentor of Brown. The distancing came later — for Brown, too late.
A Weak State GOP
For 10 years the Romney forces have kept control of the state GOP, and during that time the party has spiraled down into oblivion. Even in 2010, which was a great Republican year nationally, there was a GOP wipeout here.
Romney has used the state GOP as a vehicle for his presidential ambitions — to secure convention delegates and as a base of operations for the New Hampshire primary. The GOP state chairman is a Romney ally from Bain. The national GOP committeeman is a senior Romney adviser and Washington, D.C., lobbyist, and the national committeewoman was also a Romney campaign adviser.
Brown could have benefited from a party that was instead a vehicle for reform, a “new GOP” that spoke for independents and reached beyond traditional GOP voting blocs.
Not Appealing To Women
Brown lost to Elizabeth Warren largely due to a gender gap. According to an exit poll, he ran about 18 points behind with women.
Brown advisers knew he’d have a problem with women, just as Romney always did. But his apparent “solution” was absurd. He started his ad campaign with a TV spot featuring his popular wife, former TV reporter Gail Huff, saying that he was the most understanding of women of any man she knew. The ad showed Brown folding laundry. It ran for a month!
When he was later criticized by Warren for various votes “against women,” his rebuttal was essentially that he lived in a household full of women therefore he could not be against women. One might guess that if he had been pressed further, he would have explained that he had binders full of women.
How could a strategist, knowing that a key swing voting bloc was unmarried women, think that Brown did not need to establish himself as a strong advocate for women with serious policy proposals and leadership?
Not Defining ‘Independent’
Brown invoked the words “independent” and “bipartisan” as if they were magical. The ideas are indeed potent (and obvious) when 53 percent of the state voters are unaffiliated. But the words can be abstract to non-political undecided voters.
Brown needed to explain, and dramatically demonstrate, why his being independent and bipartisan was beneficial to the state and specifically to middle-class voters. He could have taken the race to a higher level, concentrating on issues as he did in the special election.
Instead, Brown’s strategy was to define his opponent as “not who she says she is.”
Too Personal In Attacking
Brown had Warren on the defensive in the early months. She couldn’t quite explain her claim, based on “family lore,” to be 1/32 Cherokee. There were legitimate questions about her claim, raised by reporters and the first debate moderators. But then, in debate, Brown seemed too eager and personal in attacking her character.
He said she claimed to be a person of color, but “as you can see, she is not.” Many felt that was insulting and prejudiced.
Criticism of an opponent’s character doesn’t have to produce backlash. But if it is the candidate doing it personally, and if it seems unfair or mean, it can be self-defeating. When Warren was reeling from the controversy about her supposed Cherokee heritage, Brown might have been more artful and wry in his comments. Instead, he overdid it.
A Brown TV spot also went too far, and it backfired. An attack ad used innuendo to allege that Warren was a tool of a large corporation that victimized workers on an asbestos case. Warren ran a rebuttal ad with some of the workers testifying on her behalf. That was a turning point. Warren won some sympathy; Brown lost some likability.
Decline In Creativity
In the early phase of the TV ad wars, Brown’s spots were superior to Warren’s. His ads were uniquely tailored to the candidate. Warren’s ads were formulaic.
Maybe Brown’s strategist and/or producer became too busy with other clients (Romney). For whatever reason, his ads became more conventional. The attack ads had the kind of quickie studio editing that made them seem like all the other negative campaign spots — ominous music, somber voice-over, animated graphics, etc. They weren’t effective and they helped make Brown — originally an underdog, a “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” citizen reformer, and then a celeb superstar — into a “typical politician.”
The final phase of Brown’s advertising revealed an apparent lack of strategy. There was mixed messaging — four different TV spots, appealing to very different voting blocs — rather than a compelling closing argument.
No Long-Term Strategy
Brown’s short-term strategy was to discredit the opponent and then cruise to reelection. In that way, it was similar to Obama’s strategy with Romney. It almost worked — if not for debates. That’s when the challengers made their comebacks.
Obama and Brown made their challengers out to be untrustworthy, ruthless opportunists. But when their opponents seemed well-intentioned and calm in debate, things went awry. Obama always had a fallback plan: rely on his field organization in the swing states. But Brown didn’t have a Plan B, and as a Republican in Massachusetts, he certainly couldn’t count on having a superior field organization.
We can only guess whether Brown would have been better off not signing the “People’s Pledge” to keep outside groups from advertising. If their ads had been as ineffective as those produced by most PACs, it would not have made a big difference. And maybe Brown should not have cancelled the final debate since he was behind in polls at that point and might as well have taken the risk. But we don’t know. Perhaps his advisers concluded that he was losing more voters than he was gaining in debates.
What Will Brown Do Now?
Brown said in his concession speech that he had “no regrets” about the race. He has every reason to feel optimistic about his future. Surely he’ll be offered great jobs in the private sector, and perhaps even one by President Obama. He could win the GOP nomination for governor in 2014 or in a special election for senator if John Kerry leaves his seat to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
GOP leaders and prospective candidates can’t just say “no regrets” about Brown’s loss and forget about it. They need to draw the right lessons. Perhaps they will draw different conclusions than those offered here, but a conclusion they should not reach is the one that some now say in despair, that Massachusetts will remain a one-party state.
A silver lining in the GOP hitting a new bottom in 2012 is that more voters will likely realize that a monopoly is dangerous to our civic health.
The GOP is shell-shocked, and it’s a shell of what it used to be. But even if it has to change its name and identity — Bullmoose Party? Independent-Republican Party? — it can become a vehicle for a new generation of citizen reformers.
Perhaps we need some independent Republican leaders to meet and discuss how to do that – former Gov. Bill Weld, who has moved back here from New York, former Treasurer Joe Malone, former state Sen. Richard Tisei, current state representative Dan Winslow…
Romney has had a stranglehold on the state’s GOP. He doesn’t have to self-deport, but he needs to let go.
For the GOP to make a comeback in Massachusetts, it can’t be seen as a party primarily for wealthy, white businessmen. It needs to be a more inclusive, creative, reform party.
Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.