When I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts in 2007 I thought I was done with voting in close elections. Massachusetts voted for Obama by 26 points; in 2009 it had a Democrat for governor, two Democrats for US senators, an all-Democratic US House delegation, and veto-proof majorities for Democrats in the state legislature. I thought I was done with the worries, or the obligations, that came with political life in a bellwether state.
No such luck. I spent three hours yesterday standing in light snow on a suburban corner, holding a sign for the Democratic candidate who hoped to take the US Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, led by 30 points in one December poll. Last night she lost decisively to the Republican, state senator Scott Brown. When Brown takes his seat, the Republicans will have 41 votes – enough to shut down the Senate, thanks to the filibuster; perhaps enough to stop healthcare reform, and to stop almost anything else that President Obama wants to do for the rest of his term. (Republicans are certain to gain further in November: perhaps two seats, perhaps nine.) At best, the Obama administration will finish healthcare reform through parliamentary manoeuvres, and then move on to policies (such as stricter controls on banks) so popular that a few Republicans will have to support them: at worst, Congress will pass the annual budget, congratulate athletes, and do nothing else this year.
National and international analysts will tell you that Massachusetts rejected Obama, and there’s something in that: according to one pollster almost 20 per cent of Brown’s support came from people who voted for the president but disapprove of him today. Democrats now ‘own’ the lousy economy and the unpopular bank bailout, having failed (so far) to cast blame elsewhere. Dithering over healthcare, when Americans are so worried about jobs, has made the party in power seem both unresponsive and ineffective. This race augurs badly for November, when states that are much less blue get the chance to throw the bums out; left-leaning analysts will add (correctly) that a lot can happen in ten months, and that Obama’s team can paint the Republicans into a corner by trying hard to regulate Wall Street.
It’s all true: but none of that would have mattered, in deep blue Massachusetts, had Scott Brown been a less than devastatingly effective candidate. A state senator from the affluent outer suburbs, he presented himself as Mr Smith headed for Washington, a family man in shirtsleeves who drives an old truck; handsome enough to have posed nude for Cosmopolitan in 1982 (he says he did it to pay for law school), he used his stage presence well, on TV and in person. He took advantage of the national Tea Party movement, drawing on out-of-state manpower and money (last week, a million dollars a day) without alienating Massachusetts, because he appeared (correctly) to have stable roots here. And he has a talent for soundbites: asked whether Massachusetts should provide the deciding vote against the cause of Ted Kennedy’s life, Brown answered: ‘It’s not Ted Kennedy’s seat, it’s the people’s seat.’ Crowds at his rallies have chanted ‘the people’s seat’ since.
None of that would have mattered had Coakley been a less than dreadful candidate: by most accounts a diligent public servant, she ran the worst campaign I have ever seen. She won the Democratic primary in November as the only woman and the only candidate with statewide name recognition. She then aired no advertisements until the new year, and the ads she ran were deadly dull (key word: ‘accountability’); her anodyne slogan, ‘A Different Kind of Leader’, turned out to mean that she could not lead. Used to the dry work of litigation, she seemed uncomfortable and unwilling to meet ordinary voters, explaining that she didn’t want to ‘stand outside Fenway Park, in the cold, shaking hands’ when she could just meet elected officials. Coakley held 19 public events, including those scheduled hastily in the last week; Brown, who loves to press the flesh, held 66.
A childless middle-aged career woman running against a friendly suburban dad, Coakley was hurt by old-fashioned sexism; but she was hurt more by her lack of charisma, her colourless, policy-oriented speaking style, her too-little, too-late organisation, and her many ways to seem out of touch. She called the great Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (whose conservative views are well known) a New York Yankees fan; it took her another day to call it a joke. At a time when voters feel ignored, Coakley came across as unable to listen; at a time when voters want independence, Coakley did nothing to make herself stand out. Even people certain to vote for the Democrat never got a reason to vote for her.
Instead, once the race seemed close, we got attack ads, and celebrity endorsements: Ted Kennedy’s widow, then Bill Clinton, and then Obama, who came to town to make the case that Coakley never made for herself. Such events probably did more good than harm – the Democratic Party had somehow to get its electorate engaged – but they also reinforced the sense that she was never her own woman: that she would enter Washington as a mere instrument of the same institutions that already control all the levers in Massachusetts, and most of the levers (however ineffectively) in DC.
But none of her shocking failures would have mattered were Massachusetts a state full of Harvard-educated, book-review-reading liberals (like me). It’s anything but. Compared to Minnesota, Massachusetts seems extraordinarily class-bound, afire with local rivalries and resentments; it is divided by class and by geography among the obvious beneficiaries of Boston-area higher education, the blue-collar children of immigrants in cities, and the declining factory towns to Boston’s north and west. (The Kennedys, Irish Catholics from Harvard, made the fissures invisible from afar.) All those groups voted for Democrats (as the blogger and journalist Steve Kornacki has explained) as long as Republicans looked like Southern evangelicals. Now Gingrich and Bush are gone, unemployment is high, and the face of the Republican party is a guy with a truck who wants to lower your taxes. Given an incompetent opponent, that guy could win an election anywhere.