News Analysis: Mass. Senate race shows national mood

Alan Blinder

For Democrats, the death of Edward Kennedy was supposed to mean the loss of one of their most recognizable figures, a voice that embodied old school liberalism.

Kennedy’s August death was not supposed to trigger the party’s loss of his seat – and a critical 60th vote for health care reform – to Republicans.

But that is precisely what happened. Tuesday’s special election, which culminated in Scott Brown becoming the first Republican to be elected to the Senate from Massachusetts since 1972, is a stark warning of the clear and present danger Democrats will face in November.

The national mood is decidedly anti-incumbent, and it has been for several years.

During that period, Democrats gained, benefitting from the unpopularity of a Republican president. Although George W. Bush has not been on a ballot since 2004, Democrats used his image and policies to drum up support and launch attacks against Republican members of Congress. The plan worked, and Democrats seized control of the executive and legislative branches.

But anti-incumbency attitudes are not prone to cropping up just when Republicans lead both branches. As Democrats are learning, with enhanced control comes increased blame, no matter the party in power.

Brown crafted a smart campaign – White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Chicago Tribune, “As a practitioner in politics, my hat’s off to him,” – and Massachusetts voters noticed. Bay State residents have historically responded to deft political tactics, as they did when they elected Mitt Romney, a Republican, as governor in 2002.

Brown benefited from a liberal Republican platform that appeased the fears of longtime Democrats. His platform, coupled with his amiable personality, set the stage for the defeat of Martha Coakley, a former state attorney general who struck a defiant tone of entitlement throughout the race.

While Brown’s campaign was clever and Coakley’s persona deficient, it would be a mistake to ignore the national politics that devolved to the local level for Tuesday’s special election.

More than half of Massachusetts voters are registered independents, and Brown’s ascension to the Senate signals that swing voters are swinging, for this cycle, to the right. While independents voted in large numbers for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, Brown’s support among liberal-leaning independents foretells trouble for Democrats across the nation.

But another statistic for Democrats came in an exit poll from Rasmussen Reports. The pollsters reported that some 22 percent of Democrats voted for Brown, indicating that the party in power is seeing its base erode. It is not atypical for there to be some party crossover, but 22 percent is excessive and unusual.

In Washington Tuesday night, Democrats sought to spin Coakley’s defeat as one of her own doing. While she didn’t help her case to the Massachusetts electorate, the national mood can’t be discounted, either, no matter the popularity of Barack Obama when he was inaugurated a year ago.


Scott Brown 53 percent Martha Coakley 46 percent Joe Kennedy 1 percent *Kennedy is unrelated to Edward Kennedy. As of 8:30 p.m., with 75 percent of the precincts reporting.