As the Massachusetts US Senate election unfolded yesterday, all that the pols and pundits wanted to talk about was how Martha Coakley managed to lose the race. And there is plenty there to dissect. But there is another part of the story, and that is how Scott Brown managed to win it.
To pull off this kind of huge upset, a lot of things have to go right — only one of which is having your opponent run an atrocious campaign.
Give credit to the brain trust behind Brown's campaign: Mitt Romney's top people, bred in Massachusetts politics and trained at the top levels of presidential combat. They were assembled on the stage at Park Plaza last night: Beth Myers, Beth Lindstrom, Peter Flaherty, Eric Fehrnstrom (texting away even as Brown delivered his victory speech), and of course the former governor himself, taking a victory lap in front of a national audience of cable-watching conservatives (and potential 2012 primary voters).
Watching them, it occurred to me that the same group spent most of 2007 traipsing across Iowa, having built the Romney strategy around winning that state's caucuses; and that during that time they may have picked up a lesson or two from watching another campaign that bet heavily on Iowa: Barack Obama's.
As that campaign's manager David Plouffe describes in The Audacity To Win, Obama's strategists knew from the start that they could not beat Hillary Clinton among the people who normally participate in caucuses. Thus, they had to expand the playing field — greatly increase the number (and type) of participants, so that the people who don't normally vote would overwhelm the regulars.
Brown faced the same dilemma. It was widely accepted that turnout for the special election would be no more than 30 percent, or 1.2 million people — and that number would include more than 600,000 who had already voted in the Democratic primary. The math isn't difficult.
If you like poker analogies, Coakley had a winning five-card hand, so Brown decided to make it a seven-card game.
He did this (not entirely unlike Obama) by appealing broadly to those who are disaffected, discouraged, and just generally annoyed with government and politics. Those people don't typically vote, and certainly not in a special election. But Brown made them feel that they were a part of something that would strike a dagger at complacent, arrogant, corrupt politicians, and it turned out that people were ready to join that cause. In the end, more than a million people voted for Brown; more than enough to flood the Democratic base.
The time and place could hardly have been riper for a collective rage against the political machine. State politics has become, to most citizens of the commonwealth, a parade of fools: Sal DiMasi, Dianne Wilkerson, Jim Marzilli, Marian Walsh, Anthony Galluccio, and the endless Deval Patrick blooper reel.
Meanwhile, Washington Democrats, freed from the infuriating gridlock of bipartisan government, have introduced the tragicomic gridlock of single-party government.
Perhaps the most important moment in this Senate campaign came one month ago, 10 days after the primary — when Senate leadership finally passed health-care legislation by essentially paying off Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson for his agreement to cast the deciding 60th vote.