by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 29, 2010
KATE McGARRIGLE: A SOUND FROM ANOTHER TIME
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In 1972, Massachusetts was the only state that went for George McGovern over Richard Nixon for president.
Not long after, as the Watergate scandal heated up and the economy soured, a bumper sticker sprouted up that read "Don't Blame Me. I'm From Massachusetts."
Thirty-eight years later, that bumper sticker needs revision, for there are a whole bunch of voters in the Bay State that need "Blame Me. I'm From Massachusetts" bumper stickers affixed to the backs of their SUVs.
"Blame me," they should proclaim to the world, "for falling in love with a pretty boy and voting against my own best interests to send someone to Washington who will destroy what's left of the Obama Administration's reform agenda."
But it wasn't just poorly-informed Massachusetts voters who chose Republican Scott Brown, a longtime state legislator and lawyer who was better known for having posed nude in Cosmopolitan as a young law student than for his meager political accomplishments, as their next senator. It was the hubris of a Democratic candidate who thought she would not have to break a sweat to succeed the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.
When Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley easily won the Democratic primary on Dec. 8, she seemed like a lock to win it all. Six weeks ago, she had a double-digit lead in the opinion polls over Brown. In a heavily Democratic state, running for a Senate seat held by the Democrats since 1952, when John F. Kennedy beat Henry Cabot Lodge, Coakley and her supporters thought they could coast to victory.
Instead, on Tuesday night, she suffered the most disastrous defeat in the history of Masssachusetts politics.
There are many reasons why Coakley lost, but one reason was because Coakley forgot one of Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's favorite stories about political campaigning.
In his first campaign for the Cambridge City Council in 1935, O'Neill and his friends worked the area trying to get support but came up short by 229 votes. The day after the election, one of his neighbors, an Irish housewife named Elizabeth O'Brien, told O'Neill that she had voted for him even though he had not asked her to. O'Neill responded by saying that he'd known her since he was a child. He'd mowed her lawn and shoveled her sidewalk. He just assumed she'd vote for him.
"Tom, let me tell you something," Mrs. O'Brien said. "People like to be asked."
It was the last election Tip O'Neill ever lost. For the rest of his long career in politics -- one that took him from Beacon Hill all the way to Congress and a 10-year term as Speaker of the House -- he never forgot that lesson. That was the genesis of his famous maxim, "All politics is local."
Coakley thought that, as the Democratic nominee for Senate, winning her primary meant winning the general election. She did not campaign actively until her huge lead evaporated. The Democratic National Committee thought likewise and put no resources into the Coakley campaign until it was far too late.
She failed to see that the political landscape was shifting. The first year of Barack Obama's presidency has given his Democratic supporters little to get excited about. Too many compromises with conservatives and too little action on important issues like health care and lifting the economy out of recession has left the people who supported Obama in 2008 feeling like they have been played for fools.
Coakley seemed to have no idea how determined the Republican Party is to destroy President Obama. Once it became apparent to the GOP that she was a lackluster candidate who was potentially beatable, conservatives poured money into Brown's campaign.
To Brown's credit, he outworked Coakley and did a better job of defining himself to voters. Like most modern political campaigns, this race wasn't about issues or competency or accomplishment. This was about image, and Brown was able to portray himself as a regular guy driving a pickup truck while portraying Coakley as a member of the liberal establishment who cared little about the common folk.
Brown's tv ads never mentioned that he was running as a Republican, and he successfully blurred some of his more extreme positions on health care, financial reform and national security. And despite Massachusetts' liberalism, female political candidates have always struggled there. Politics is still a contact sport in the Bay State. Machismo still rules.
So, don't believe the "Democrats in disarray" story lines that are being pumped out by the national media. Coakley was beaten by the mortal political sin of complacency coupled with hubris. She allowed her opponent to define her to voters before she could define herself. She showed that if you are a tepid centrist and a lousy candidate, there is little that can save you against a determined and well-funded opponent.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the 2010 congressional elections will be about each party's political base. The Republicans are united in their hatred of President Obama, while the Democrats have pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of demoralizing their base and completely turning off voters in the center. Recent polls have shown that as many as 40 percent of Democrats say they aren't going to show up to vote in 2010 because they are so disenchanted with the Obama Administration's failures on health care, financial reform and the war in Afghanistan.
If Democrats want to keep their majorities in Congress, the lesson they should learn from Coakley's defeat is to take nothing for granted. They must give the voters a reason to support their candidates, rather than hope that they dislike the other party's candidate more.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.