Scott Brown does the unthinkable and steals Teddy Kennedy’s seat for the Republicans. Samuel P. Jacobs on how Mitt Romney and the Republicans hope they can ride his wave all the way to 2012.
With yells of “Seat him now” from the crowd, Scott Brown climbed the stage in Boston and shook the nation’s political landscape last night. Brown, a little-known state senator from a Boston bedroom community, became the poster boy for the Republican Party’s effort to halt President Barack Obama’s health-care plan and reverse the Democratic gains in the 2008 election.
Brown relished the David versus Goliath dimensions of his victory, which dragged the president up to Boston to stump on behalf of the flailing Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee candidate and Massachusetts’ attorney general.
“This really does change everything,” Romney said.
“It all started with me, my truck, and a few dedicated volunteers. It ended with Air Force One making an emergency run to Logan,” Brown said in his victory speech. In the end, not even Obama could stop Brown, who beat Coakley 52 percent to 47 percent, becoming the first Republican to hold the seat since Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (The last Republican elected to Massachusetts' other Senate seat was Edward Brooke).
Brown adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said a victory for any GOP candidate in Massachusetts requires missteps from the Democrats, and Coakley, 56, made her share of them. She mocked the idea of shaking hands in the cold, called Red Sox great Curt Shilling a Yankees fan, and—in what proved her most damning strategic error—allowed her opponent to paint her as aloof and arrogant.
“For a Republican to win in Massachusetts, you need a near-perfect campaign, have your opponent make a few mistakes, and have the issues on your side,” Fehrnstrom, who moonlights as Gov. Mitt Romney’s spokesman, said before the polls had closed Tuesday night.
As the balloons dropped from the ceiling of the Park Plaza Hotel, so too may have the hopes of Democrats throughout the country.
“What happened in this election in Massachusetts can happen all over America,” Brown said.
Some Brown supporters were triumphant even before the polls had closed.
“Why does everyone look so grim?” solar company owner Bruce Monire-Williams, 44, said early in the evening. “The race was over at the debate when Scott Brown said it was the people’s seat and told Martha that there were terrorists in Afghanistan.”
Brown’s rebuke about the “people’s seat” came in response to a question about the “Kennedy seat” during the campaign’s sole debate. The legendary Boston family’s hold on the state is so entrenched it was even evident at Brown’s Election Night rally, as the speakers blasted “Sweet Caroline,” the Neil Diamond hit about a young Caroline Kennedy (the song’s a favorite at Red Sox games).
Tuesday’s election had ramifications for another Massachusetts political name: Romney. As The Daily Beast reported over the weekend, the erstwhile presidential candidate’s fingerprints were all over the Brown campaign. His inner circle of advisers guided the effort. Yet the man who was the last big Massachusetts GOP success story was nowhere to be found once the campaign picked up speed.
“They can’t bring Mitt Romney here,” Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Warsh said, referring to the widespread perception in the state GOP circles that he abandoned the moderate image he had in Massachusetts and ran opportunistically to the right during his 2008 presidential primary campaign.
But the hidden hand came out of the shadows on Election Night, introducing the victorious Senate candidate.
“This really does change everything,” Romney said.
His appearance on the television risers elicited chants of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” He meandered over to a row of reporters to reiterate that his focus was on helping Republicans win seats in 2010, not on the presidential election in 2012. Excitable Republicans are already talking up Brown as a viable vice-presidential candidate down the line. But it’s hard to imagine anyone competing with Romney, let alone a fellow Bay Stater, for the middle-of-the-road Republican vote.
Romney wasn’t the only Republican in the house hoping for a bank shot off of Brown’s victory. Gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker, who will challenge the Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in November, said Brown’s emphasis on the economy could provide a blueprint for his own run.
“The big message is that if you are a challenger, and you want to do something about jobs, people are going to give you a look,” said Baker, the 53-year-old who used to head up Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
Christy Mihos, 60, a businessman who will challenge Baker, the establishment candidate, for the Republican nomination, took a different message from the Brown victory.
“Scott was able to rally the citizen patriot groups, the 9/12 people, the Ron Paul people, the Tea Party people. Republicans are only 11 percent of the voters here. That’s the only way we can win in the commonwealth,” Mihos said.
The role that those groups played in Brown’s victories will continue to roil the Republican Party. The support of groups like Tea Party Express is either a sign of the anti-government movement’s maturation—only a few months ago they were chasing a similarly moderate Republican named Dede Scozzafava out of a congressional race in upstate New York—or a sign of the populist groups’ utter lack of focus. Like the Tea Partiers, Brown avoided the Republican label, favoring talk of “independent leadership” and being an “independent voice.” Unlike the Tea Party movement, Brown’s distance from the Republicans was an effort to win votes on the left, not the right. It will be interesting to see whether the Tea Party crowd’s enthusiasm for Brown—so strong down the home stretch of the campaign—will remain after the victory parties die down.
On the final day of the campaign, a dreary New England day, the two candidates seemed to switch strategies. Brown, whose public appearances outnumbered Coakley’s 66 to 19 from the primary on December 9 until January 18, put his ubiquitous pickup truck in the garage for the day, and ducked in at a post office and a bank—but otherwise staying largely behind closed doors, where he worked the phones for one last appeal to neighbors and friends. Coakley, lampooned as the invisible candidate, hurtled around the state, traveling 275 miles from Boston’s North Station to a New Bedford restaurant to a Worcester synagogue back to the steps of the Boston Public Library, with a few more stops in between.
Republicans said it was too little, too late for Coakley.
“I know it's romantic to see the candidate run around the state on Election Day but that takes away a lot of energy,” said Ron Kaufman, veteran Republican strategist and an unofficial adviser to the Brown campaign.
To capture the campaign’s successful ride, Brown adviser Fehrnstrom called upon a new kind of Republican sage for the new Republican
“You know Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” Ferhnstrom asked reporters. “He said, all he needs in life is a few tasty waves. We thought we had a few tasty waves.”
(Update: This article originally misstated that Charlie Baker headed Blue Cross Blue Shield.)
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.