BOSTON – In a stunning blow to Democrats, Republican Scott Brown on Tuesday seized the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, handing the GOP the crucial vote that could thwart President Barack Obama’s far-reaching agenda, beginning with health care reform.
More broadly, Brown’s epic upset signals the start of what could be an exceedingly tough year nationwide for Democrats, who are fighting to hang onto their majorities in the House and Senate in a political climate that seems to grow more hostile by the day.
“The effort to pass Obama’s legislative agenda has grown more difficult, a flood of new Democratic congressional retirements may follow and Republicans will certainly feel emboldened to expand their list of Democratic targets for the fall election,” said Rhodes Cook, an independent campaign analyst.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, Brown, a state senator, was leading Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley 52 percent to 47 percent – a clear-cut margin that only added to the humiliation for Democrats, who held the Senate seat for well over half a century.
The scene Tuesday night at Brown’s victory party in Boston was exultant. Shouts of “Shock the World” and “Yes, We Can” – Obama’s campaign rallying cry – rang through the packed ballroom at the historic Park Plaza hotel.
“Tonight, the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken,” Brown told the cheering crowd. “This will be the beginning of an election year filled with many surprises. When there’s trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured there’s trouble everywhere.”
The most immediate problem for Democrats is keeping alive Obama’s attempt at health care overhaul – something Kennedy called “the cause of my life.”
Polls show the legislation has grown increasingly unpopular the longer the congressional debate drags on. Brown made his opposition a centerpiece of his campaign and promised to kill the bill upon arrival in Washington, using his vote as the 41st Republican senator – the exact number the GOP needs to block the legislation.
Democrats appeared to be in disarray. Even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised swift action, others in the party called for holding off on any final vote until Brown is sworn into office.
The finger-pointing over the loss in Massachusetts began before the polls closed. Obama administration officials accused Coakley of running a poor campaign. She was complacent to the point of arrogance – taking extensive time off after the Dec. 8 primary, disdaining the notion of standing outside in the cold, shaking hands – and committed a series of gaffes, including an assertion during a debate last week that Afghanistan was free of terrorists.
Coakley supporters, however, blamed a backlash against the president, who today marks his first anniversary in office on a decidedly sour note.
Obama, who put his political prestige on the line by making a last-ditch appearance on Coakley’s behalf, “was both surprised and frustrated” at how competitive the race had become in this once-sturdy Democratic bastion, spokesman Robert Gibbs said at the White House, while votes were still being cast. “Angry?” a reporter asked. “Not pleased,” Gibbs replied.
Brown’s victory will surely stoke the debate among Democrats about whether they must recalibrate their strategy ahead of the midterm elections by scaling back their ambitions and working more with Republicans, as party moderates suggest, or use the majority they still hold on Capitol Hill to push through an uncompromisingly liberal agenda, as many on the left advocate.
The GOP has won three major contests since Obama took office a year ago, capturing the governorships last November in Virginia and New Jersey. Analysts say it will be difficult for Republicans to win the 40 House seats and 10 in the Senate they need to win back control of Congress. But after Tuesday’s special election, the party’s prospects have certainly improved.