Political Hay

Scott Brown’s Dilemma

Deval Patrick might not strike fear into the hearts of Republicans, but an independent-conservative split should.

By 12.20.10

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BOSTON -- Noam Scheiber, writing in the New Republic, says that Barack Obama has found the model that will allow him to win a second term against all odds: the reelection of Deval Patrick as governor of Massachusetts.

Patrick won a second term just months after signing a sales-tax increase at least as unpopular as Obama's health care bill. He spurned his advisers' entreaties to run away from the tax hike or the liberals in the state legislature. And he won a second term in "the same foul, anti-incumbent mood that elected Scott Brown." According to Scheiber, Team Obama has taken notice.

If the president's men want his reelection campaign to be based on that of a tax-raising Democrat who won 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race in a liberal state, good luck to them. Perhaps they have found a faux Tea Party candidate who can split the center-right vote, a majority even in Massachusetts, for them. But the aforementioned Scott Brown had better take notice of Patrick's success.

Brown, the Republican elected to fill the last two years of Ted Kennedy's term in January, will face the voters again in November 2012. He stunned the Democrats in that special election. This time they will see him coming. Faced with a larger than usual number of competitive Republican candidates this past November, Massachusetts Democrats reminded everyone that they are hard to beat without the element of surprise.

Patrick's two main challengers emulated Brown in certain ways. (A fourth candidate, Green Party nominee Jill Stein, is a perennial also-ran of the left.) Charlie Baker sought to remind the Bay State's tax-averse silent and slim majority that a two-party system was needed to counteract the Democratic machine on Beacon Hill. But Tim Cahill, the state treasurer, tried to take Brown's campaign to the next level: he left the Democratic Party and sought to appeal to Scott Brown independents.

Yet both candidates had serious flaws. Baker -- a former Harvard Pilgrim CEO and adviser to Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci -- had extensive ties to both the health insurance industry and past Republican administrations. The latter complicated his message of independence and made him too close to such boondoggles as the Big Dig. Baker also ran as a Weld-Cellucci Republican, hard to the left on social issues rather than finessing them as Brown and Mitt Romney had done.

Cahill tried to appeal to neglected Massachusetts social conservatives almost by microtargeting. Moreover, by running as an independent he could pick and choose wihich issues to be moderate or conservative on, without owning any Republican baggage. The trouble was that he had no track record as an outspoken conservative, whether the issue was Romneycare (which Baker supported and Cahill now opposed) or social issues. Having been burned by former House Speaker Tom Finneran, another allegedly conservative Democrat, voters were understandably suspicious.

Naturally, Baker and Cahill spent most of the campaign attacking each other. The Republican Governors Association spent liberally driving up Cahill's negatives. Cahill hit back, wrapping RGA Chairman Haley Barbour in the Confederate flag and riling the Republican voters he needed to be a viable candidate. Angered by Baker's attacks, Cahill refused to drop out even after he was no longer viable. Baker supporters continued to regard Cahill as a Democratic stalking horse. Patrick was able to seem above the fray.

While Brown endorsed Baker, the odds of a Cahill-style independent candidacy against him are small. But the tension between independents, Republican regulars, and Tea Party conservatives will haunt Brown's reelection campaign as surely as it prevented anyone from getting a clean shot at Deval Patrick.

In the lame-duck session of Congress, Brown cast votes that will please and anger each of these groups. He helped block the DREAM Act amnesty conservatives overwhelmingly opposed but reached out to socially liberal independents by backing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Brown supported the tax cut compromise. Tea Party conservatives were united in their desire to keep the Bush tax rates, but they were divided over whether it was better to do whatever it took to keep taxes from rising at the beginning of the year or to let the new Congress pass a more durable tax cut without all the accompanying government spending.

Brown kept his promise to be the 41st vote against Obama's national health care plan. But his election proved to be less of an obstacle to its passage than a bump in the road. Brown broke with Republicans on a Democratic jobs bill that mixed spending increases with tax cuts and the new package of financial regulations. Both of these votes were to show that he was practical, independent, and sympathetic to Main Street rather than Wall Street. Many conservatives who had hoped he would be the 41st vote against every major Democratic initiative nevertheless hoped differently.

Although Baker and Cahill combined got more votes than Patrick, they ran about two points behind Brown. Democrats begin campaigns with a very high floor on their support. Even the disastrous Martha Coakley managed to win 47 percent of the vote. If Brown's next opponent manages even a modest improvement, he or she will be hard to beat. Democrats and their public-sector union allies also have proven get-out-the-vote operations that can swing close elections when they are fully engaged.

In the special election, Brown was able to appeal to both ideological conservatives and non-ideological voters who had tired of the one-party Democrats' sense of entitlement. In 2012, both groups of voters may be at each others' throats. That's the one area where Democrats may look to Deval Patrick in hopes that Scott Brown's dilemma can be the national GOP's.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.