In Scott Brown's surprise success, a GOP template for midterms?

In the Martha Coakley vs. Scott Brown face off for the Massachusetts Senate seat, Republican Brown has come from behind in a campaign focused on fiscal responsibility. That could be a template for the GOP in this year's midterm elections.

By , Staff writer

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    Scott Brown (R) left, campaigns outside the T.D. Garden before a Boston Bruins hockey game in Boston, Mass., Monday.
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    Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley shakes hands as she enters a campaign rally in Framingham, Mass. Monday.
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Regardless of the outcome, the jump ball Senate race in Massachusetts on Tuesday will be the template for the 2010 midterm elections, at least for come-from-behind Republicans.

Dark horse GOP candidate Scott Brown shredded Democrat Martha Coakley’s 30-point lead with a campaign on fiscal responsibility and reining in big government spending and entitlements. Analysts say Ms. Coakley also contributed to the debacle with a lackluster campaign and a series of gaffes.

“If Brown ends up winning tomorrow, it’s certainly a sign of tsunami in November this year in favor of fiscally conservative candidates,” says Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, which supports candidates who favor limited government and low taxes.

“It’s a strong commentary on the rejection of the healthcare bill and an overall rejection of Obama’s policies, especially on spending issues,” he adds. In this election cycle, the Club is targeting not just Democrats but also Republicans such as Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah, who are seen as not fiscally conservative enough.

But the midterm elections are still 287 days out, and there’s plenty of time for learning and stumbles, say campaign analysts.

“At this point, you’re looking at an environment that’s getting better and better for Republicans,” says Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “But a lot of the messaging is going to depend on what happens tomorrow. I assume if Brown wins, the push back from Democrats will be: The voters have spoken. We’ve heard the message — and turn it around.”

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Still, in another year, the slogan “Scott Brown believes in fiscal responsibility” – the tag line in a $500,000-plus television ad buy for the Massachusetts Republican by the US Chamber of Commerce – would have provoked yawns. But unpopular government bailouts, soaring federal deficits, and a jobless recovery have turned the issue into a top concern for voters.

“This issue is catching hold,” says David Walker, president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson foundation. Since resigning as comptroller general of the US in February 2008, Mr. Walker has visited all but four states stumping for reforms to deal with the nation’s growing fiscal imbalance. Escalating deficits and debt is now the No. 2 concern of Americans, exceeded only by the economy and jobs, he says, citing a late November 2009 poll that shows 80 percent of Americans were concerned about fiscal responsibility.

The numbers are staggering, Walker says. In the first eight years of the 21st century, the federal financial hole – that is all the benefits, programs, debt payments and other expenses to which the federal government is already committed – has grown from $20.4 trillion to $56.4 trillion. That’s a 176 percent increase, he writes in his book, “Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility,” released last week.

Within 12 years, interest payments will become the largest single expenditure in the federal budget, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The 2010 election must be about solutions to this problem and putting in place a process that will set the table for tough votes in 2011, Mr. Walker adds. “It will take a generation to do what we need to get done, and we need to get started now, before our international financial lenders lose confidence in the United States.”

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist argues that Brown's campaign is challenging a longtime assumption in the conservative movement that voters will only respond to spending as an issue when it translates into tax increases. “What has happened is that the spending explosion by President Obama, [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi have made spending per se a vote-moving issue,” says Mr, Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Assuming that the Massachusetts race is close, one way or another, it says something about the power of spending as an issue. That lesson will be internalized more rapidly if the Republican wins.

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