Tuesday, January 19, 2010

GOP takes Massachusetts Senate seat

I found this race interesting because although Obama carried this state by a 26 point margin in November 08, Scott Brown won a state-wide race for a US Congress job by a 5 point margin, a swing of 31%. Although some of that swing can be explained by the deterioration in Obama's support over the last year, clearly the Republicans in Massachusetts did a lot of things right these past few weeks and/or the Democrats did a lot of things wrong. After all, if it was just a referendum on Obama or Obamacare, this seat should have been tagged for possible takeover last fall. It wasn't. Brown was down 20 points as late as December 19. Any campaign that can overcome a deficit like that in just a month is worth studying.

One might begin with what Massachusetts Democrats did wrong. According to a national Democratic official:
The only thing that changed between the Dec 19th poll, where the Coakley campaign had a 20 point lead, and the January 5th poll, where their lead had been halved, is that the Brown campaign went on air and aggressively defined their candidate as well as the Democratic candidate, while the Democratic candidate was literally on a vacation. During that period, the Coakley campaign did no further polling, advertising, or ID'ing of supporters despite having a significant fundraising advantage.

Another national Democrat doesn't mince words:
the [state] campaign failed to recognize the threat, failed to keep Coakley on the campaign trail, failed to create a negative narrative about Brown, failed to stay on the air in December while he was running a brilliant campaign. [The state] pollster, candidate and campaign team were caught napping and allow[ed] one of the worst debacles in American political history to happen on their watch...

Before the DNC and DSCC got involved there was barely a single piece of paper on what the narrative is on Brown. The candidate in this race and the campaign have been involved in the worst case of political malpractice in memory...

Now the Coakley campaign disputes these allegations, but Marc Ambinder's knocking down of the Coakley campaign's various complaints about the national Dems is worth reading.
This attack ad, apparently the brainchild of the DNC, features the silhouettes of bankers against the Boston skyline and, quite frankly, has "created by over-educated, liberal nerds" written all over it. The ad tries to play the populist card and simply tries too hard. Brown's ad looks amateurish in conception but is far more effective.

What did the Massachusetts Republicans do right? According to the RNC:
The RNC shipped computers, printers, scanners, routers, and over 400 phones to the Massachusetts Republican Party...
the RNC deployed an additional 32 staffers and helped send 160 volunteers on three busses from Washington, DC to the state during the final week...
people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have made over 150,000 calls from their own homes to urge Massachusetts voters to go to the polls for Scott Brown on Election Day....
the RNC committed to put into action a plan to test new and innovative voter ID and get-out-the-vote programs. Starting in early December, the RNC equipped 9 field offices with new peer-to-peer networking technology and innovative VOIP products for volunteer voter contact...
In mid-December the RNC made its portion of the maximum allowable federal contribution to the campaign and also sent out 228,000 fundraising e-mails on behalf of Scott Brown.
As a result... nearly 2.0 million volunteer voter contacts have been made through Jan. 18

All good stuff, but the work of ordinary citizens in trying to raise the race's national profile might have been significant, and in any case I happen to think that the choice of candidate must have been the most critical factor given the degree to which the Brown campaign overperformed the expected result for a generic Republican in Massachusetts. Brown's Facebook page had 120 000 fans, for example, while Martha Coakley had less than 20 000.

I found a speech that Brown gave to the Newburyport (population 18000) Republican Committee in June and I think it is really good, not because it is eloquent or profound but because it is engaging, informative, and uses humour well. There's a part 1, part 2, and part 3. Unlike a set-piece Obama speech, it isn't tele-promptered. Interestingly, in the first part he describes a caucus colleague as the caucus leader, even though another person has that role officially. In this video, we see Brown doing his job as local politician and sounding quite reasonable.

Merely being affable isn't sufficient, of course, since it is often combined the dubious judgment. But in this interview from November 2008, however, Brown sounds quite measured:
I think there is too much of a Southern influence on the Republican party right now nationally and it needs to be more of a moderate party...
We lost our way with the overspending issue that affected the Bush administration and really it was President-elect Obama going against President Bush not really Senator McCain. That's going to wear off and he's going to have to deliver... If the economy doesn't work out well quickly and [Obama] is not decisive he is going to have some lingering problems...

Combine an avuncular personality with a good work ethic and a good feel for moderation (apparently Brown distanced himself from Palin on a talk radio show last year) and one's got the makings of a good candidate. I happen to think it imperative that conservative candidates be upbeat. To be a great candidate, however, he or she has to also be a policy heavyweight, and on that count Brown has his detractors, in particular the upscale - perhaps too upscale - Boston Globe. One of the Globe's editorialists wrote a very clever - perhaps too clever - analogy piece after Brown won election to the US Senate that may say a lot about the nature of Brown's appeal.

Another Boston Globe writer doesn't think that Scott Brown is likely to be found at Mensa meetings. But can we expect politicians to be public policy ninjas? Just because Alberta has one doesn't mean it's at all common. Nuance is not exactly in fashion these days in any case. An Associated Press analysis quotes White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as saying that in 2010
People are going to have to decide whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies, or whether they're on the people's side.

There is, to be sure, a minimum bar when it comes erudition, and Sarah Palin manifestly does not meet the standard. Palin may have the charisma, but the conservative intelligentsia has never backed her (I don't consider Bill Kristol a respected pundit... at least not any more). When it comes to Scott Brown, apparently some of his supporters have brandished signs referencing Hayek. That means essentially nothing at this stage, but Rich Lowry of NRO speaks approvingly of "conservatism in its practical, electoral aspect" and David Frum's FrumForum likes Brown's moderation.

If this environment persists into 2012, Scott Brown could potentially be a very competitive contender for the Oval Office. The fact he that can remind people of Richard Gere when he is wearing his glasses would count for a lot more than most voters would admit to. I would not want to bet against him should he take his truck to Iowa. Keep in mind that Obama's legislative record as a state senator wasn't any more distinguished the Brown's, and some of the policies Obama supported in the Illinois legislature were demonstrably misguided. Even if Obama is strong on policy in the sense that he can readily understand and appreciates expert advice, it doesn't mean anything when he is so ready to cut political deals and play the populist card.

I am of two minds about what to conclude about how Brown appears in this video. He comes across as arrogant and aggressive. If I were a female voter I might find him sexy (who knows?) but would probably be turned off by his attitude, reinforced by the body language, relative to his female opponent. I've complained a lot about the hostility that seems to emanate from the federal Conservative party in Canada. But it may be possible to distinguish the Harper Conservatives from Scott Brown in that the former are a dour lot, while Brown generally exhibits a sunny disposition . Exhibiting some contempt may just come with the territory of a candidate that has the right psychology for handling the ugliness of politics. We shall see!

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