Mass Arrogance

Sure, Martha Coakley was a lousy candidate. But what did you expect from the people who gave us John Kerry and Michael Dukakis as national candidates? Bryan Curtis on the Bay State Democrats’ fatal smugness.

01.20.10 12:27 PM ET

Scott Brown won Tuesday’s night’s U.S. Senate special election against Martha Coakley because he ran a resourceful campaign and because she ran a listless one; because GOP voters were more fired up than Democrats, and the national political winds are blowing in Brown’s direction.

But there was another undercurrent beneath yesterday’s results: the arrogance of Massachusetts Democrats. The thinking was that there was no way a Republican victory could happen in the commonwealth, especially one that could obliterate Barack Obama’s most cherished issue. One Boston College political scientist told the Boston Globe back in December that Brown “won’t win.”

“They were up three games to none, and there was no possible way they were going to lose four straight,” Curt Schilling said of the Democrats’ overconfidence.

“I have said arrogance and I will say it again,” Andrew Card, a Massachusetts native and former George W. Bush chief of staff, said in an interview Wednesday.

“One reason the voters reacted the way they did was the arrogance practiced by the Democrats not only as they led into the election, but as they designed the rules for the election,” he said.

Curt Schilling, a beloved former Boston Red Sox pitcher and a Brown supporter, agreed. Schilling became a campaign cause célèbre when Coakley mistakenly called him “another Yankee fan.” He was asked if he was surprised by Coakley’s rather unengaged campaign in Massachusetts.

“No, I live here,” Schilling said.

Referring to the Democrats’ overconfidence, Schilling quipped, “They were up three games to none, and there was no possible way they were going to lose four straight.”

The reference—unmistakable even to Coakley—was to Boston’s 2004 victory over the Yankees, another overconfident bunch, in the American League Championship Series.

At the outset, Coakley could have been forgiven for being overconfident. Democrats control the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation and the governor’s mansion. Coakley won the Dec. 8 Democratic primary by 19 points over her closest opponent, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano. But then Coakley appeared to embark on a slow-motion victory lap. She made a total of only 19 campaign appearances, compared to Brown’s 66. Asked if she was being too passive, she told a Globe reporter, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" She let Brown’s ad comparing himself to John Kennedy pass without comment. When Republicans talk about Democratic “arrogance” nationally, they usually mean that Democratic congressional majorities are passing legislation. When they talked about Coakley, they were talking about the real thing.

There were other wearying, high-level Democratic machinations. In 2004, Massachusetts Democrats had changed a law so that Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, could not appoint John Kerry’s Senate replacement in the event Kerry became president. By the time Ted Kennedy died last August, the governor was a Democrat, Deval Patrick. So the Democrats in the legislature changed the law again so Patrick could appoint Kennedy’s replacement.

Coakley is not the first Massachusetts Democrat to be undone by overconfidence. “If there’s a direct historical parallel to the miserable campaign that Coakley ran, it's probably Mike Dukakis, running for reelection in 1978,” said Charles P. Pierce, who writes for the Boston Globe magazine and blogs for its Web site. In 1978, Gov. Dukakis’ Democratic primary opponent, Edward J. King, outworked the Duke by appearing on numerous small-time radio stations—a strategy that Scott Brown used this year. Dukakis entered primary day up 20 points in the polls; he lost to King by nine points.

“That was a bolt out of the blue,” said Philip W. Johnston, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. He added, “This time, we at least had three weeks’ notice.”

At other times, a Democratic bout of self-satisfaction has merely made the party or the particular officeholder look craven. There was the Kennedy family’s trick of having family friend Benjamin Smith occupy John F. Kennedy’s Senate seat for two years until Ted Kennedy, the chosen heir, turned 30 years old. More recently, there was Deval Patrick, who sold his memoirs for $1.35 million just as he was faltering in the polls, leading Boston Globe staffers Alex Beam and Mark Feeney to imagine what such a chronicle of failure might look like.

Democratic and Republican strategists both pointed to the scandals in the Massachusetts legislature. Three consecutive Democratic speakers of the state House have been ousted, for crimes ranging from tax evasion to obstruction of justice. Former State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson is charged with taking bribes and stuffing money into her bra. Stories like those, combined with the distaste for the U.S. Congress, created an all-encompassing, anti-Democratic narrative. “If Capitol Hill is running well, the scandals on Beacon Hill wouldn’t matter,” said Ron Kaufman, an informal adviser to Brown and the Republican National Committeeman for Massachusetts.

The irony is that Ted Kennedy was usually a vigorous campaigner, whether his challenger was the well-heeled Mitt Romney or the hapless Jack E. Robinson III. Kennedy’s would-be successor didn’t live up to his standards.

“It’s not unusual for a candidate to go on vacation after an election,” Andrew Card said. “In Massachusetts, they go on vacation after the primary.”

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.