“The worst debacle in American political history.” That’s what a senior Democratic Party official called the Democrat Martha Coakley’s performance in the Massachusetts special election to fill deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat. That may be an exaggeration, but there’s no question that losing the Senate seat Kennedy held for almost 50 years by a substantial margin—in one of the bluest states in the country—is disastrously bad for the Democrats.
At stake, of course, was the Democrats ostensibly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The Republican victory jeopardizes the Democrats whole legislative agenda—including, of course, the health care reform that Sen. Kennedy fought for before he died. While there is still a chance that the Democrats may be able to get a health care bill passed, it’s going to be harder now. As Nate Silver pointed out, health care stocks were up dramatically today on the prospects of a Republican victory. Moreover, the loss of Kennedy’s senate seat is a sign—much more than loss of the statehouses in New Jersey and Virginia was—of just how much the political climate has turned against the Democrats. If the race wasn’t exactly a referendum on President Obama—53% of voters still say they approve of his performance—it does reflect the Democrats’ failure to sell the public on health care reform. A lot will change between now and November, but it doesn’t bode well for the their prospects of holding on the the House in the fall. As Raymond La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, put it, “Every Democrat in the country should be upset with Martha Coakley. She’s created challengers for all of them, challengers with money and a game plan.”
So what happened? For one thing, Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, is star. Called “the Scott heard ’round the world” and “Hottie McAwesome”—he posed nude for Cosmo after winning their competition for “America’s sexiest man” in 1982—he attracted enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. And although, as Boris Schor notes, Brown is a fairly liberal Republican—in Massachusetts, you have to be—he managed to attract national tea party support, since he represents their best chance to block the Democrats’ national agenda.
Martha Coakley, meanwhile, really isn’t a star. Although she was elected state attorney general with 73% of the vote, she was stronger on law-and-order issues than economic ones. She also lost ground to Brown by taking the last couple of weeks of December off, even though the election was just a month away. And then there were her constant gaffes. Not only did she seem to suggest that shaking hands with her ordinary constituents was a waste of time, but she also said that Red Sox legend Curt Schilling was “a Yankees fan”—a mistake that even locals who couldn’t care less about sports would be unlikely to make.
The fact that this was a special election also hurt Coakley. Voters could take their frustration with incumbent Democrats out on her, but she didn’t have any of the advantages that come with actually being an incumbent. In addition, the short campaign didn’t give Coakley—or the Democratic Party—time to recover from her mistakes. And since turnout is usually lower for special elections, they generally favor the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters. With the economy bad and health care languishing in Congress, these were just about the worst possible conditions for a Democrat. As a former Kennedy staffer put it, “Right now, people just don’t want to hear anything the Democrats have to say. They think there is a lot coming out of Washington, and none of it is for them.”