Scott Brown Senate win leaves Obama, Democrats scrambling

Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts has shifted the political landscape. Endangered Democrats are likely to play it safe, and some might retire.

By , Staff writer

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    New in town: Senator-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts met a Senate employee Thursday in Washington. The Republican's come-from-behind win has been read as a new opening by some in the GOP.
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    Long wait: Job seekers sit in a government employment office in New York. Public concern about jobs and the economy has translated to voter anger, analysts say.
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It was the shot heard round the political world.

And like the start of the American Revolution, another Massachusetts event, the improbable victory of Republican Scott Brown in the special Senate election this week, has permanently altered history.

Suddenly, with the loss of the Democrats’ 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, President Obama’s agenda is in jeopardy.

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A far-reaching overhaul of the healthcare system, close to completion before the Massachusetts vote, may now be beyond reach. A second economic stimulus package, already a steep legislative climb amid concerns over government spending, just got steeper. Financial regulatory reform is in doubt. Climate-change legislation is probably off the table.

The political landscape has also shifted. Already-endangered Democrats are likely done taking risky votes. And presumably safe Democrats are now looking over their shoulders, wondering if they, too, might be vulnerable come the November midterms.

The good news for Mr. Obama and the Democrats is that they have 10 months to retool and regroup. In fact, some analysts say, the loss of the Massachusetts seat could in one sense be a blessing in disguise for the Democrats, as it has shown them just how endangered their congressional majority is.

Obama must win back supporters

The question is how to regain the confidence of former supporters, especially the independent voters who backed Obama in 2008 and who swung decisively toward the Republicans in the last three statewide races: Massachusetts, plus last November’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

“The most important thing Obama can do to win back independents is improve the economy,” says Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “People are very worried about jobs.... Prosperity would do a lot to reduce the populist anger that we’ve seen around the country.”

The House passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December, just on Democratic votes; Senate Democrats may now believe passing similar legislation is beyond reach. Though the Obama administration says the first stimulus package of $787 billion saved 2 million jobs, many Americans are skeptical. Republicans argue for bigger and more effective tax cuts, not more deficit spending.

Even if presidents can’t create jobs outright, they can help foster public confidence in the future, and if people are confident, they will spend more, says Mr. West, who notes that consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the economy.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

When Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, the economy is expected to be front and center, with jobs as issue No. 1 but also with a focus on fiscal solvency.

On Tuesday, the White House and congressional Democrats agreed tentatively to create an independent, bipartisan budget commission, which would look broadly at the tax code and entitlements. Congress would vote on its recommendations after the fall elections.

Political analysts say the shift of independents away from the Democrats does not necessarily redound fully to the Republicans’ advantage. Polls show the GOP is still less popular than the Democratic Party. One major poll found the antitax “tea party” movement more popular than either major party.

“Independents are sizable and want to be heard, and they’re voting,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “Today they are against the president, and they are solidly against the Democrats. But it’s a real stretch to say that they’re with the Republicans.”

Mr. Zogby predicts that independent candidates will be “coming out of the woodwork,” running in primaries and in general elections. Some could get more than 10 percent of the vote, “enough to throw everything into a tizzy,” he says.

That may be a greater problem for moderate Republicans. Nervous Democrats are more worried that top-tier Republicans, sensing the wind at their backs, will jump into the fall elections. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) is considering a challenge to Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, one of the Senate’s most liberal members.

New York next to go 'red'?

Pollster Lee Miringoff wonders if New York could be the next blue state to go red, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York languishing in the polls.

“The only announced GOPer is Bruce Blakeman,” blogs Mr. Miringoff, director of the nonpartisan Marist Poll in New York. “Not exactly a household name. But, then again, Scott Brown certainly wasn’t either.”

Other Democratic senators could be endangered, if A-list Republicans jump in, including Evan Bayh of Indiana and Patty Murray of Washington.

In some respects, the political climate today resembles that of early 1994, when the Democrats were swept out of congressional control on a wave of discontent. Republicans had just won the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and a Republican – Kay Bailey Hutchison – had taken over the Senate seat of Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who had resigned in 1993 to join the Clinton administration. Though not as striking as the Massachusetts election, the Texas vote signaled a GOP comeback.

The Massachusetts upset “is the kind of event that feeds on itself, because contributors are paying attention,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and a former GOP staffer. “Candidates all over will be able to hit up contributors saying, ‘Look, if Scott Brown can win in Massachusetts, I can win here,’ wherever ‘here’ may be.”

More Democrats could retire

The Brown victory could also give Democrats thinking of retiring one more nudge toward the exit. Open seats are often harder to defend than incumbent-held seats – especially those in swing districts or those that lean in the opposite political direction from the member – so each retirement pushes the 2010 cycle toward a potential blowout.

But there’s an important difference between now and 1994. Then, it had been 40 years since the Republicans had controlled the House.

Today, it has been only four years – and the public does not have fond memories of Republican-controlled government.

Democrats are still debating the Brown upset. Was it about policy or a lackluster Democrat facing a charismatic Republican? Likely both, analysts say.

“It’s the substance, stupid!” writes Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House counsel, in Huffington Post. He cites polls showing that fears about the Democrats’ healthcare proposal figured prominently in Brown’s win.

But, Democrats add, a top-notch campaigner with a reassuring message could probably have saved Ted Kennedy’s seat.

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