In a stunning upset in liberal Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown rode a wave of voter anger to defeat Democrat Martha Coakley and win the U.S. Senate seat held for 47 years by the late Edward M. Kennedy, leaving President Obama's health care overhaul in doubt and signaling big political problems for Democrats this fall, when House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot.
WBUR's political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — go back and forth on what a Brown win and Coakley loss mean for Massachusetts and for the country at large.
Was this a national referendum more than dissatisfaction in the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley?
Dan Payne (D): Well, it may have been something else. It may have been dissatisfaction within the electorate here about their circumstances. About the lack of jobs, about the Wall Street bonuses, about the back-room deals that were transpiring on health care legislation.
People were deeply dissatisfied and they wanted to find a way to say that, and Scott Brown became the vehicle for that.
Todd Domke (R): Well, Scott Brown won by a big enough margin where you could say that it was her message, it was the candidate, it was Barack Obama, it was liberal policies in Washington — it was any number of things.
This is a liberal Democratic state, by reputation. We know that it has, at least, elected only Democrats to federal office here for decades.
So Scott Brown now is the most popular senator in the country — even though he hasn't yet taken office — and actually has the most clout if you consider that his election could mean killing off the health care bill, if Barney Frank is right in making that prediction.
How did Brown manage to sneak up on Coakley?
Todd Domke (R): Well, I don't think he tried to sneak up on her, I just think the media coverage was so little that it was a surprise to people. He had been campaigning hard, he ran a brilliant campaign, he had a populist message, he emphasized that he was an independent rather than Republican, he was a charismatic candidate, and he had that David versus Goliath thing — and maybe also a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington attitude.
He caught fire, too, because of national issues that all of a sudden allowed him to ride the wave: domestic terrorism, the health care bill, spending generally and the sense of corruption and arrogance in Washington.
What was Coakley's biggest mistake?
Dan Payne (D): Well, she didn't define herself, didn't let people know what she thought the campaign was about; and she didn't define Scott Brown as a not-moderate, which is what he was masquerading as throughout the campaign.
So she got caught up in a campaign that was almost beyond her control. You know, you either have to control the way you are perceived or the way the other person is perceived. Ideally, you try to do them both — she wound up doing neither.
Todd Domke (R): I hate to debate an election that's already taken place, but I don't buy the idea that Scott Brown tried to masquerade as a moderate. He was very clear on the positions he took on any number of things.
He wasn't bashful about saying he wanted to see the health care bill go down in defeat. He wasn't shy in talking about domestic terrorism or about the deficits or about any number of things.
So, he was independent in attitude, and people know that on a lot of social issues he was more moderate. The point is: This is a wake-up call for the Democrats. Now, they can play the blame game in criticizing Martha Coakley, criticizing the Democratic senatorial committee, criticizing Barack Obama.
But the people here, really I think, tried to speak clearly that they're dissatisfied with the liberal trends in the Washington political establishment and they want Barack Obama and the Democrats to move to the middle.
Is Obama, who came to Boston to campaign for Coakley, damaged by her loss?
Dan Payne (D): Well, it depends on what happens in Washington in the next few weeks. If he can rally Democrats and get a vote on the health care bill — with Scott or without Scott Brown. Can he explain his attitudes now that were reflected in this election?
I think the administration in Washington, the Obama administration, has been entirely too concerned about what Wall Street is doing and thinking. That they've got to start paying more attention to Main Street, they've got to talk more about jobs and stop worrying about whether New York bankers are feeling good or giving bonuses or whatnot.
You know, he can learn from this experience and be empowered by it. It will take us awhile to figure out whether that's going to be the case.
Todd Domke (R): Well if Barack Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress, you know, choose to ignore the outcome of this race and act as if it doesn't matter, than they will suffer, as Scott Brown said, more surprises like this in this election year. Because the voters really are outraged at the, kind of, bribery of senators, that kind of corruption; the overspending, you know, trillion-dollar deficit and all the rest of it.
They want bipartisan solutions. Scott Brown has said he would reach out. He said, basically, his theme is: We can do better. Just as John Kennedy has that as his slogan once before.
Dan Payne (D): This whole notion, though, that he's moderate, I just don't understand this. He says he's for Roe v. Wade, except he has abortion restrictions. He says he's moderate, except on guns he has a 100 percent NRA rating. He's vocally opposed to same-sex marriage. Those are not moderate positions.
Todd Domke (R): Well, you should tell Barack Obama — he's against same-sex marriage, too. In a number of ways he's moderate, in a number of ways he's clearly conservative, but you know this state rejected the outright liberal positions of Martha Coakley. They would rather have somebody who's moderate/conservative than somebody's who's just pure liberal.
What does this upset mean for politics — and candidates — on Beacon Hill?
Dan Payne (D): I think Gov. Patrick's got to take this very seriously. This was a warning shot, not only to Democrats in Washington but to Democrats on Beacon Hill. The Legislature has not covered itself in glory in the last year or so, with indictments of three state senators, the ongoing investigation of Speaker DiMasi.
People are going to be turning their eyes now toward the State House and wondering, you know, if they shouldn't make some changes there as well. And by this I don't mean just Gov. Patrick but also, you know, the other constitutional offices. Should they be looking to shake that up as well as we go forward in 2010?
Todd Domke (R): I agree totally with what Dan just said. I think he's being very realistic that there is an anti-establishment mood, and that Republicans now feel re-invigorated, they're going to find better candidates, they're going to run better campaigns, using Scott Brown as a model.
And I think the people in the state, especially independents, like the idea of having a choice, like the idea of a really competitive race like we went through. And I think the TV stations, with all the ad revenue they made off these campaigns, will encourage that, as well.
This program aired on January 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.