Amazingly, it appears that a Republican has something of a real shot at winning the interim election to replace the recently-deceased Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. No, really, go back and read that sentence again and think about it. Let that really sink in.
The Republican scored a direct hit with this moment on a TV debate:
And he hasn’t looked back from there. The Boston Globe has pronounced the election “up for grabs” and Brown, who is actually not a particularly conservative Republican* as compared with, say, Sam Brownback, has managed to unite several factions of the oft-beleagured Massachusetts GOP and to reach out to moderates and even some Democrats to gain some support. So if he wins, he would be the first Republican Senator elected from Massachusetts since 1972.** So what significance could we draw from such a singular event?
- The mood of the country is so far against President Obama and the health care reform proposal that even ultra-liberal Massachusetts is willing to elect a Republican to Ted Kennedy’s seat to stop it.*
- Martha Coakely ran an utterly incompetent campaign, literally misspelling the word “Massachusetts” in one of her advertisements and this is simply her comeuppance for never having taken the election seriously. Conversely, Brown appears to have been a smart, energetic, well-financed, and personable candidate; there hasn’t been a factory in Massachusetts (especially the western part of the state) that he hasn’t visited, a baby he hasn’t kissed, or a club he hasn’t spoken to, for the past two months.
- It’s easier to run against the party in power no matter where you are, as long as you aren’t running against an incumbent.
- Voters always pick the better-looking candidate and Scott Brown was voted America’s Sexiest Man by Cosmopolitan magazine and hey, if anyone would know who that was, it would be Cosmo. It probably doesn’t hurt that his daughter was a competitor on American Idol although I question whether in any seriousness that matters very much.
- There is a wave of populism running across the country and Scott Brown is surfing on it; the wave will crest and eventually collapse as things return to normal (perhaps by way of the GOP subsuming the support of this movement).
- Martha Coakley is simply not as good a candidate as everyone thought she would be and the effective one-party system prevailing in Massachusetts has a cursus honorum that does not filter for charisma and political strength but rather filters for the ability to please party insiders with ideological conformity.
As an explanation, I think we’re going to have to say that there is some mixture of all of those reasons into the cocktail. Personally, I heavily favor explanations #4 and #6 in that mix at the expense of the others. Martha Coakley pleased a lot of people (myself included) with a public splash on same-sex marriage. But the thing about a one-party system is that there is no competition for various seats; it is easy for insiders to angle their chosen favorites in to intermediate-level offices through manipulation of the primary system and raw application of party money because lower-level races don’t matter that much. When you go for something the people know counts, like U.S. Senator, that becomes harder to do and it’s starting to appear that Coakley doesn’t have what it takes to compete at that level (which includes being tall and good-looking) while Brown does.
* Brown has taken the position that he is not opposed to health care reform as a basic idea, or even the idea of an expanded role of the government in a new health care system, it’s just this particular bill that he would vote against because it costs too much. A defensible position, if you asked me, which you kind of did by coming here to my blog.
** That would be Edward Brooke III, winning his first bid for re-election, in 1978, he lost to Paul Tsongas. Senator Brooke was only the third African-American ever to sit in the U.S. Senate and the first to get there by winning a popular vote; before him were Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both of whom won appointment to the Senate by vote of the Mississippi Legislature shortly after Reconstruction.