BOSTON — The last time Massachusetts sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate, the year was 1972. Richard Nixon was in the White House. Sonny and Cher were still together. “All in the Family” was still only in its second season. The Chevy Chevelle was one of the country’s top-selling cars. And Massachusetts was the only state in the country that voted to elect George McGovern president.
That last trivia item illustrates the significance of state Sen. Scott Brown’s accomplishment. A Republican who started the race down 30 points was elected to the Senate seat the late Ted Kennedy held for 47 years, winning 52 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. He won with a simple argument: “This Senate seat belongs to no one person and no one political party — it belongs to the people of Massachusetts.”
Nobody expected the special election to fill the remainder of Kennedy’s term to even be close. Certainly, Attorney General Martha Coakley didn’t. She cruised to victory in the Democratic primary based on name recognition and then hoped the “D” after her name on the ballot would take care of the rest. Her only goal in the campaign was to make sure that Massachusetts voters knew libertarian-leaning independent candidate Joseph Kennedy wasn’t man from Citizens Energy and descendant of Camelot.
Barack Obama didn’t expect to have to fly to Boston for a last-minute get-out-the-vote rally on Coakley’s behalf. He won Massachusetts by 26 points in 2008. His bill expanding the federal government’s role over the American health care system was supposed to be the culmination of Ted Kennedy’s life work. This was, as he put it, a simple choice “whether we’re going forwards or backwards” — between Obama’s change we can believe in or the bad old days that came before.
Well, it took George W. Bush five years to bring his party to the brink of electoral disaster. It has taken Obama one year. That’s change, all right.
The political establishment in Washington didn’t anticipate having to make any changes to the way it does business. When the first polls suggested that Scott Brown might be a serious candidate, they began to dream up ways to ram through their legislative agenda as if nothing had ever happened.
Simmering beneath the surface, however, there was a group of voters who were tired of corrupt one-party rule on both Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill. They had patiently paid the bills while one “change agent” after another pledged progress, without seeing any benefit to their own families.
They had the highest hopes for the Barack Obamas and Deval Patricks and the Michael Dukakises who knew better how to spend their money than they did. In Massachusetts, these folks were already paying for universal health care, only to face the prospect of Uncle Sam asking them to pony up again.
Now they were finally fed up. By Christmas, the lawn signs alone suggested an enthusiasm gap between Brown and Coakley. By the time your humble servant returned to Massachusetts earlier this week, it was evident that the angry independent was ready to make his voice heard. Another shot heard ’round the world? Perhaps not, but at the very least the most dramatic repudiation of the commonwealth’s Democratic hierarchy since 1990.
Once the Democrats realized they were in trouble, virtually everything they did reinforced the disgruntlement of voters drawn toward Brown. Already concerned about giving one political party absolute power, these angry independents were treated to news reports that the Democrats were willing to contemplate delaying Brown’s certification in the event that he won. Already worried about an onerous health care bill, they heard about the national Democrats’ plans to pass a bill no matter who Massachusetts elected senator.
With many voters already tired of being treated with contempt by a politician who clearly felt entitled to be senator, Coakley became a parody of herself when she belittled mingling with the hoi polloi outside Fenway Park — “This is a special election” — and ignorantly mocked former Boston Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling as a “Yankee fan.” Faced with voters disgusted by a political party that seemed to believe it was destined to rule, the best Coakley could do was drag a virtual politburo of Democratic hacks into the state to campaign for her, doing everything short of disinterring Senator Kennedy himself.
In the end, the “D” next to Coakley’s name was still worth about 47 percent of the vote. Although Scott Brown did nearly everything right during this short campaign while running against a candidate who did nearly everything wrong, he still needed last-minute help from friends and donors across the country to help him across the finish line. Bay State Democrats are probably already thinking of ways to unseat him in 2012.
But watching the revelers at Park Plaza — who never at any point in the night seemed to doubt the outcome of this election — chant “the people’s seat” at the top of their lungs, a thought occurred. Once the people get used to exercising their power, there is no telling where they will stop.