Some called it the “Scott Heard ‘Round the World.” A year ago today, Scott Brown stunned the bipartisan political establishment when he won election to the U.S. Senate seat Ted Kennedy had held for 47 years. Although the Revolutionary War rhetoric was obvious hyperbole, the excitement wasn’t entirely unjustified: this was the Democrats’ biggest electoral defeat of the Obama era.
Not the first, mind you. Chris Christie had already been elected in New Jersey, Bob McDonnell in Virginia. It also ended up being far from the last Democratic setback of 2010. But the health care bill was then hurtling through Congress, where the party of Obama enjoyed three-fifths majorities in both houses and enough votes to extinguish Republican filibusters in the Senate.
The Brown upset threatened to put the brakes on that agenda. Brown restored the Republicans’ filibuster power by giving them a 41st vote against health care and other Democratic legislation. More importantly, he proved that such legislation could be politically ruinous in Massachusetts — a very liberal state that already had a version of Obamacare and where the Kennedys had been clamoring for national health care throughout the postwar era. It was the Tea Party’s first real triumph.
What a difference a year makes. The Democrats were briefly scared by Brown’s election — remember Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) telling his colleagues to slow down? — but decided to forge ahead. The Democratic leadership determined the health care bill was something worth losing their majority over; a critical mass of swing-state Democrats came to a similar conclusion about their congressional seats. The reconciliation process made Brown’s 41st vote in the Senate a mere formality.
Brown has since lost some of his luster. National Democrats no longer fear him. Instead they are said to be busily seeking a challenger who can reclaim the Senate seat in November 2012, someone with better political skills than the hapless Martha Coakley, a Bay State Democrat who couldn’t tell a Red Sox pitcher from a Yankee if he came up and waved a bloody sock in her face.
The Tea Party has tired of Brown’s weak tea as well. The Massachusetts Republican voted for the Obama administration’s Wall Street “reform” package. In the lame-duck session of the last Congress alone, he sided with the White House on the START treaty, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the tax cut compromise. Only on the DREAM Act amnesty did he hold firm.
“I think that there will be a primary challenge,” Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea party, predicted to the Boston Globe. “There’s enough of an underground movement in the Tea Party movement as seeing him as not being conservative enough. There probably will be multiple people who attempt to run against him.” No names have emerged and multiple challengers would probably work to Brown’s advantage. But he won’t necessarily be able to count on the national Tea Party fervor to carry him across the finish line a second time.
Last year, many Massachusetts Republicans — inspired by Brown’s example — decided to run for office. A number of them ran surprisingly competitive races against Democrats who had never had to work for reelection before. Outside of candidates for the state legislature and the governor’s council, however, all of them lost. Only a handful had anything approximating conservative support from out of state. None of them had the element of surprise over the public-sector unions and party machines that fuel the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts.
Things have gotten so grim for Massachusetts Republicans that even a former aide to Gov. Deval Patrick took to the pages of the Boston Herald to lament the state party’s decline. But many of Brown’s problems are also the national GOP’s: the party is most effective at running against Washington and galvanizing independents when out of power.
In 1994, Perot voters cast their ballots for the first Republican House in 40 years and against the Clinton regime’s witches’ brew of tax hikes, Hillarycare, and midnight basketball. But in 1992, after the dismal Bush years, they voted for Ross Perot. Six years after the Bushes returned — and after twelve years of a Republican Congress — independents were ready to vote to empower even Obama, Pelosi, and Reid.
Driving around in his pickup truck and talking about “the people’s seat,” Brown could appeal simultaneously to conservatives who wanted a reliable anti-Obama vote and independents who hoped the new senator would heed Rodney King’s famous plea. Congressional Republicans must now do the same with Americans who want to get rid of Obamacare and those who want the federal government’s hands off their Medicare.
Like Brown, the new Republican majority will face choices. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), whose Tea Party is of the bold and caffeinated variety, is set to unveil $500 billion in spending cuts from this year’s budget. Good luck getting others to identify $50 billion over ten years.
It was always unrealistic to compare Brown and new Republican compatriots to the events of Lexington and Concord or the shot heard ’round the world. One could nevertheless hope that they opt to go out with a bang rather than a whimper.