Massachusetts Senate race: let the blame game begin

Win or lose the Massachusetts Senate race, Martha Coakley should have run a better campaign against Scott Brown, political strategists say. Now, Democrats are asking: What went wrong?

By , Staff writer

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    Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley greets supporters outside the polling station where she cast her ballot in Tuesday's special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy in Medford, Massachusetts.
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The blame game has already started.

Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate race, Democrats know they have a lot of explaining to do. The fact that the race is even competitive is alarming enough to a party and president laboring to pass a major reform of the healthcare system. The fact that Republican state Sen. Scott Brown may well win in reliably liberal Massachusetts – taking over the seat of the late Edward Kennedy – is cause for deep soul-searching.

But even before the votes are counted, the early blame is going first and foremost to the Democratic candidate herself, state Attorney General Martha Coakley. She won the Democratic primary handily on Dec. 8, then appeared to go to sleep. Early polling against Mr. Brown showed her winning by 30 points. With nothing to lose, Brown hopped in his 2005 GMC Canyon pickup truck and campaigned energetically around the state.

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Ms. Coakley, diffident on the stump, also went light on television and campaign ads, and seemed confident that her momentum out of the competitive primary would carry her to an election day victory just six weeks later. But she and her campaign ignored the warning signs, say Democratic analysts.

A 'toxic' political environment

“You’ve got an environment that’s pretty toxic,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic media strategist based in Washington. “You can’t take anything for granted.”

Start with a stubbornly high unemployment rate, still in double digits. For months, President Obama, the Democratic Party, and their policies have been losing the support, in particular, of independents nationwide, and independents are the largest voting bloc in Massachusetts.

Though seen as the bluest of blue states – and indeed, its entire congressional delegation is Democratic – Massachusetts has been known to elect a Republican or two in its recent history, particularly to the governor’s office. The current governor, Democrat Deval Patrick, has low job approvals.

Congress is in the final throes of healthcare reform, an increasingly unpopular effort that has been caricatured by Republicans – including Brown – as an attempt by Washington to take over the healthcare system. Brown appears to have successfully turned his Senate race into a referendum on healthcare reform.

“As the 41st senator I can stop a lot of this stuff in its tracks,” Brown told Politico on Jan. 7. In the 100-seat Senate, he would be the 41st Republican, ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 seats.

Tapping into the 'tea parties'

Brown has also successfully tapped into the energy and support of the antitax “tea party” movement, which has responded to his call for help. Republicans in general have flooded the state with money when Brown’s late surge showed he had a shot.

So is Mr. Obama himself in part to blame for Coakley’s woes? Insofar as he has presided over his own steady decline in job approval, and even lower public approval of his policies, then yes. The White House, fearing bad news later in the day, pushed back Tuesday against blame for its role in the campaign.

In an interview with regional reporters Tuesday, Obama political strategist David Axelrod said the White House would have done more to help Coakley if requested. Obama went to Boston on Sunday to campaign for her, but it may have been too late.

“The White House did everything we were asked to do,” Mr. Axelrod said, according to the Baltimore Sun. “I think if we had been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier.”

A lot of 'ifs'

Axelrod also praised Brown’s campaign: “As a practitioner of politics, my hat’s off to him.”

While Brown has correctly read the mood of the electorate, Coakley has been caught short in ways both large and small – including some bad gaffes. When asked recently by the Boston Globe why she was spending time with party poobahs, she replied: “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” Over the weekend, she referred to former Red Sox ace pitcher Curt Schilling as, as “a Yankee fan.”

Despite the tough atmospherics for Democrats, Coakley could have made things much easier on herself and the Democrats.

“There are always a lot of ‘ifs,’ ” says Mr. Fenn. “If they’d had a good campaign in December; if they had started off right after the primary; if they had gone on the air with ads and defined him as well as her, the big money from outside the state probably wouldn’t have come in.”

Could she have won by 30 points? No, he says. But she would have almost certainly won. Now, that seems a long shot.

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