Politics & Policy

The Perfect Storm Hits

Scott Brown goes from long shot to leader.

Back on January 4, as Scott Brown was driving his beat-up truck through Massachusetts TV ads, I noted, “The bad news is that Brown needs almost a perfect storm — unbelievably fired-up Republicans, immensely depressed Democrats, and a heavy skew among independents — to make up the traditional 30-percentage-point deficit and win this race.”

A week ago, I followed up, “The good news for him and his campaign — and for every conservative and spending-weary independent pulling for him — is that the Bay State is seeing a lot of wind and some very choppy seas. But there’s need for more before it hits perfect-storm territory.”

Finally, that perfect storm is hitting the Bay State, and barring some sort of amazing 11th-hour comeback by Martha Coakley, Scott Brown will become the next senator from the state of Massachusetts. Coakley acted as if she were the incumbent, and then was stunned to learn that incumbency comes with disadvantages when the electorate is this disgruntled.

ACROSS THE SPECTRUM

For Coakley, the one piece of good news from the past week is that Democrats are paying a bit more attention to the race. It’s come at a steep price to the Democratic establishment: $1.9 million in ads from Coakley, $1.4 million from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $549,000 from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), $425,000 from the SEIU-backed Citizens for Strength and Security. Bill Clinton took time off from his duties with Haiti earthquake relief, and President Obama flew in on Sunday afternoon.

But most polls still have Brown carrying 19–20 percent of the Democratic vote, while very few Republicans support Coakley. According to Steve Kornacki’s sources on the Coakley campaign, her internal polls show her with less than 80 percent of the Democratic vote. There haven’t been a ton of high-profile defections, but the former Democratic mayor of Quincy endorsed Brown, and reporters aren’t having too hard a time finding Democrats in the state and in Washington willing to trash Coakley’s campaign without attribution.

Of course, there’s some sense that even as state attorney general, Coakley’s done little to inspire much admiration or even familiarity among Democrats; Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the late senator Ted Kennedy’s son, got her name wrong repeatedly on Sunday.

Independents continue to favor Brown by a wide margin. In the American Research Group poll, Brown leads among the unaffiliated 64 percent to 32 percent. He leads by the same margin in the latest from Public Policy Polling. Even in the Daily Kos poll — one of the few not to see a Brown lead — independents prefer Brown, 52 percent to 37 percent.

Martha Coakley might be a nice woman, but she’s doing an exceptional job of hiding it during this campaign. She scoffed when her opponent’s hands shook at Fenway Park in cold weather. She seemed genuinely to think that Catholics with strong religious beliefs ought not to work in emergency rooms. She sent a mailing claiming that Brown wants rape victims turned away from hospitals, an egregious misreading of a conscience clause Brown supports, and ignored the similar language supported by the man who held the seat she aims to win. There’s some evidence, including the ARG poll, that the flyer controversy actually hurt her among women.

Every candidate makes gaffes, usually simple flubs like mixing up budget numbers or saying “income taxes” instead of “payroll taxes.” But Coakley’s mistakes in recent days have been perfect for repeating at the bar or office water cooler. One of her message guys “sent a message” to The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack by shoving him to the ground. She later lamented that she was being “stalked.” One of her anti–Wall Street attack ads used an image of the World Trade Center. She called Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a Yankee fan when he came out against her. She campaigned, in a rather heavy-handed manner, at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast.

THE KENNEDY MYSTIQUE

Races turn on more than personal charisma, but it helps. In this race, one candidate is a smiling guy who’s always walking around neighborhoods shaking hands, driving an old truck, and talking proudly about his daughters; the other is a cold fish who keeps approving attack ads.

In the end, David Gergen might have a huge impact on this race. The veteran of many administrations and omnipresent television news commentator — who can always be counted on for the most refreshing and groundbreaking assessment of current events — asked Brown a question that you would never see come from a Jim Lehrer: “Are you willing, under those circumstances, to say, ‘I’m going to sit in Ted Kennedy’s seat, and I’m going to be the person who is going to block [health reform] for another 15 years’?” Brown corrected him: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat, and they have a chance to send somebody down who is going to be an independent voter and an independent thinker.”

In fact, a surprisingly small number of Massachusetts residents think of it as “Ted Kennedy’s seat.” Only 20 percent told Suffolk that the endorsement of Vicki Kennedy made them more likely to support Martha Coakley; 27 percent said it made them less likely, and 52 percent said it made no difference. But the query and the Kennedy invocations on the part of the Democrats helped underline Brown’s preferred contrasts — insider vs. outsider, the status quo vs. the opposition, the candidate who treated the general election as a mere formality vs. the guy willing to work for every vote.

Few were saying this until the spotlight shifted to the race, but Scott Brown is shaping up to be one of the most striking talents to emerge in GOP circles in years. He has highly positive personal ratings in most polls. Some of this stems from having the airwaves to himself and audaciously (but accurately) introducing himself to voters as the candidate who backs John F. Kennedy’s proposal for across-the-board tax cuts.

So far, Brown has been masterly at hitting the right tone. When Obama made four or five references to Brown’s truck in his stump speech for Coakley — including the dismissive “everybody can buy a truck” — Brown responded, “Mr. President, unfortunately, in this economy, not everybody can buy a truck. My goal is to change that by cutting spending, lowering taxes, and letting people keep more of their own money.” It would have been easy to make it “your economy,” but Brown held back from making it him vs. the president. His jabs at rallies are veiled, indirect: “It’s funny how quickly the politics of hope have turned into the politics of destruction.”

At rallies, Brown explicitly pitches himself to Democrats; he doesn’t begin by assuming that everyone agrees with him. His advertising and campaign web videos feature a lot of his supporters, and not a ton of him. He’s populist, but not angry.

Think of Massachusetts’s classic successful politicians: the famous Kennedys, Rep. Joe Moakley, or former speaker Tip O’Neill. There’s a common thread of oversized personalities, full of energy, eager to shake the hand of anyone who can vote (and anyone who can’t). John Farrell, former Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, describes O’Neill in his biography, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century: “A matchless personality was the new Speaker’s most profound political strength. His hat still fit him, as they said in his native North Cambridge. He remained an old shoe. Affable. Funny. Gregarious. Approachable. Genuine. A doer of favors. A spinner of tales.” In this race, Brown’s style matches that of the classic Massachusetts politician a lot better than Coakley’s does.

MIDWINTER QUIRKS

On Monday, the snow was falling. It accumulated most in the west, where Obama won by wide margins: Berkshire County (75 percent for Obama), Franklin County (73 percent for Obama), Hampshire County (72 percent for Obama), Hampden County (61 percent for Obama). (McCain actually got more than 40 percent in Worcester, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Barnstable counties.) This probably won’t be a major factor, but it ensures that the turnout will be a battle between those who are most enthusiastic and determined — probably, on balance, an advantage for Brown.

You can take your pick among examples of how weird, incongruent, and out-of-sorts the Obama rally for Coakley turned out. The president, who now effectively manages GM, bashed a candidate for driving a GM truck. He paid tribute to Coakley’s independence while emphasizing how important it was to have her in the Senate so she could vote in lockstep with the other 59 Democratic caucus members. He said he thought about wearing his Chicago White Sox jacket.

Behind Coakley, the audience looked sleepy, with one or two yawns caught on camera. Once Obama appeared, they applauded and wildly cheered his every utterance, even at borderline-inappropriate times, including after a sentence that ended with a reference to the Haitian earthquake.

Obama seemed uncharacteristically flustered by a heckler. He bragged that he cut taxes — not mentioning that the cut amounts to about $13 a week for the average taxpayer — and suggested that Brown would oppose tax cuts. He bragged, “We’ve begun to deliver on the change you voted for,” when unemployment is significantly higher than when he took office.

Did Obama cost Coakley votes? Probably not, and perhaps the late appearance will be enough to nudge some otherwise-lackadaisical Democrats.

A Brown win will have Republicans believing that they can win anywhere, and that confidence will be wonderful heading into the midterms. It’s worth remembering that a Republican can win anywhere with that perfect storm: a strong candidate, a weak and clumsy opponent, independents fed up with the status quo, and a lucky break or two along the way.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on National Review Online.

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