How Martha Coakley misread the tea leaves in Boston Harbor

Win or lose, Martha Coakley’s Massachusetts senate race campaign will influence Democratic strategy in a tough election year. And the result could have major impact on Obama’s agenda.

Charles Krupa/AP
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate vying for the seat vacated by the death of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, shakes hands with union supporters during a stop in Boston on Saturday.

Win or lose in Tuesday’s Massachusetts senate race, Democrat Martha Coakley may rue a major strategic mistake: Misreading the tea leaves stirring again in Boston Harbor.

For an out-of-left-field state senator named Scott Brown – a purplish Republican in the bluest of blue states – to come close to winning Senate lion Ted Kennedy’s long-Democratic seat is stunning. Should he win, analysts agree, it’ll be confirmation that the political universe has shuddered and realigned, with major implications for President Obama’s progressive agenda in Washington by breaking the Democrats’ hold on the Senate.

“If Brown wins this election, it will be the shot heard around the world,” Rhode Island Tea Party President Colleen Conley tells the Boston Herald. “This will be a clear indictment of the Obama presidency and the Democratic Congress overreaching.”

Trying to stave off a surging Brown, who moved ahead in one poll on Thursday, Coakley’s campaign is now charging full-bore, calling in what the Monitor calls “the big guns”: former president Bill Clinton and, on Sunday, President Barack Obama, who had earlier said he wouldn’t campaign for Coakley.

Coakley's 'Rose Garden' strategy

To be sure, even liberal strategists in Massachusetts now admit privately and in the media that Coakley’s “oh-so-insider” strategy and the air of inevitability some commentators called the Rose Garden strategy, failed to match the public’s mood. Brown may have closed the distance with the single phrase: “It isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat, it belongs to the people of Massachusetts.”

“[Coakley’s] response, at crunch time, is to rely on the White House and the Democratic National Committee – even as her opponent is imploring voters to vote for ‘me against the machine’,” writes Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker. “His message is resonating. Her strategy isn’t.”

Now with Messrs. Clinton and Obama stumping this weekend, Coakley’s strategic mistakes are turning into a possible lose-lose for Democrats all around. Obama’s stakes alone are huge as, if Coakley pulls out a victory, it would show she couldn’t do it on her own; if she loses, Obama stuck his neck out, got involved (which he initially wasn’t going to do), and showed he couldn’t rescue the one vote he needs to pass healthcare reform in what has, by all accounts, become a referendum on reform.

The linchpin here is the healthcare reform bill. With a minority of Americans supporting it, Brown has cast himself as the deal-breaker, the man who could – as the 41st Republican in the Senate – put the kibosh on the bill.

Meanwhile, Coakley’s campaign has been trying to paint Brown as a mediocre populist consorting with known enemies of the President, including the tea party groups

“If Brown wants to make it national, he has to live with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly,’’ one Coakley adviser told the Boston Globe. ‘‘If that means we have to own Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy, I like our odds.’’

Brown stayed away from fire-breathing conservatives

That charge has actually stuck. Indeed, Brown did not call on figures like John McCain or Sarah Palin to stump for him, but instead called in the more centrist former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Brown has, in fact, downplayed his connections to the tea party movement, even as tea partiers contributed to a million-dollar “money bomb” that fell into Brown’s coffers one day last week.

Mr. Clinton denounced the tea party connection to Brown on Friday at a rally for Coakley.

“I thought Massachusetts knew more about American history than anybody else, and understood the Boston Tea Party was a revolt against abuse of power, not against government itself,” Clinton said.

But it is in many ways Obama’s bold agenda and promise to co-opt “business as usual” in Washington that’s sparked a massive second-guessing of progressivism even in the liberal heartland of the Northeastern Commonwealth.

“Voters are down on Washington,” writes veteran AP reporter Liz Sidoti. “They are deeply divided over the healthcare plan in Congress. And a majority think the country is on the wrong track. Nearly all remain anxious about the prolonged recession even though there are signs of recovery. And only about half approve of Obama’s job performance. Excessive spending and big government irk them. And they have lost faith in institutions.”

All a bit overwrought? Maybe not. Tuesday will indicate the depth of voter dissatisfaction, and will show both parties how to win – and how to lose – in 2010.


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