Brown v. Coakley: bellwether or special case?

When Scott Brown was elected to the Mass. Senate back in '04, a number of political observers--including me--thought his win suggested that then-Governor Mitt Romney might suceed in his quest to put Republicans in the state legislature. In fact, Romney's "Reform Team" turned out to be a gargantuan disappointment.

Fast forward six years. As you no doubt know, Scott Brown's latest bid for higher office is being hailed as a major bellwether, too: if he defeats Martha Coakley today and becomes a US Senator, the Democrats will be in seriously bad shape in 2010's midterm elections and beyond, or so the thinking goes.

The Democrats do, in fact, have good reason to be worried about their future prospects, what with the crippled economy, the broadening war in Afghanistan, and Barack Obama's crappy approval numbers. But as Paul McMorrow argues at Sphere, a Brown win shouldn't necessarily be taken as a portent of doom. Coakley's botched campaign has been much discussed of late, but McMorrow's assessment of how she fell short--and how that helped Brown--is still worth reading. A sample:

What's going on is the same thing that always happens in Massachusetts elections, just usually with less dire consequences for the ruling party. Massachusetts has one of the least competitive state legislatures in the country. Every other year, its nearly exclusively Democratic members take a vacation that stretches from August to New Year's. Nominally, this break affords members of the Great and General Court to defend their seats by means of the democratic process. But, in fact, they mostly coast to re-election. Although the governor's office remains competitive, virtually all other statewide and constitutional offices belong to Democrats, as if by divine right.

The complacency and strategic flabbiness that dynamic breeds yields standard-bearers who make terrible candidates for higher office. Kerry and Michael Dukakis became national losers because they had no idea what it took to win a fight when it turned filthy on them. Their opponents defined them, and they weren't able to respond.

That's a big part of what's sinking Coakley now. The Romney brain trust running Brown's campaign took advantage of Coakley's dulled interest in campaigning to paint her as a sort of tax-hungry she-vampire, and Coakley's camp, unaccustomed to having to play rough, had no idea how to respond. In their debates, the career prosecutor was fully unable to advance a contrasting message or defend her political stances. The things she has said that have resonated have been even more unhelpful: declaring that there are better uses for her time than shaking hands in the cold outside Fenway Park (as Brown did, lustily), mumbling an unintelligible joke about Curt Shilling that seemed to mistake the Red Sox World Series hero for the New York Yankees lover.
"When she did engage, she was unprepared," [one] Democratic consultant says. "She couldn't articulate anything." 

 Sounds about right--but that won't make it any less frustrating for the Dems if Brown's sui generis victory puts hm in a position to derail healthcare reform.

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