Unless you were in outer space Tuesday, you probably heard Scott Brown’s upset victory in the Massachusetts special election called every cliché from “the New Massachusetts Miracle” to “The Second Shot Heard Round the World.” But regardless of the tired newscast formulations, the result was a stunning defeat for Democrats that seems to have left them a bit dazed..
“What do you guys want to talk about?” was Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ tongue-in-cheek commencement of the standing-room-only briefing of White House correspondents Wednesday, guessing (correctly) that every question would be about Massachusetts. Even my colleague Andrei Sitov of TASS tried to get in a question about the international reaction to State Sen. Brown’s stunning (52% to 47%) win over Democrat Martha Coakley.
But while press attention was in abundance, one bit of analysis that is only just now being explored is whether, like the smashing election last November of Republican Bob McDonnell as Virginia’s first Republican governor in eight years, the triumph of Scott Brown in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts is a model for winning campaigns by conservative GOPers in the midterm elections of 2010.
“The campaigns of Brown and McDonnell are very similar,” veteran political analyst Michael Barone told me on Wednesday, “Both campaigned primarily on economic issues, downplayed conservative stands on cultural issues but did not back off on them. Both got good majorities in modest income suburbs.”
That said, are campaigns such as those run by McDonnell and Brown the Republican Party’s template for tomorrow?
Along with Barone, one who sees the similarities between the two campaigns and agrees that they are a successful formula is Phil Cox, campaign manager for McDonnell’s big (57%) win in the Old Dominion State and now head of Gov. McDonnell’s political action committee.
Cox, who watched the Brown campaign closely, told me that the key ingredients he saw in his man McDonnell’s campaign and that of the senator-elect from Massachusetts are twofold: first, applying conservatism to every-day challenges of the modern era and, second, being true to core principles.
“Results-oriented conservatism” is how Cox characterized this combination that worked for McDonnell and Brown.
As examples of this, Cox cited McDonnell’s pounding hard at education reform through greater choice in schools by parents, making government more efficient by determining where it should be involved (or whether it all) and drawing a firm line against new or higher taxes. Brown took a similar approach in proclaiming himself the “41st senator” needed to stop the Obama-backed health care proposal in the Senate, calling for an economic policy based on job creation, and strongly backing tax cuts.
To underscore tax cuts as an issue, Brown even used an ad featuring newsreel clips of John F. Kennedy, who held the same Senate seat from 1952-60, calling for tax cuts while President in 1962. The commercial, which was the brainchild of former Mitt Romney operative and Brown campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom, “framed the election,” according to Ron Kaufman, Republican National Committeeman from Massachusetts and a key Brown strategist.
But both McDonnell and Brown remained true to their conservative principles. As Cox noted, “[McDonnell] never wavered on his principles, such as believing in smaller government and his strong pro-life record. That’s where he was in the political arena.”
As for Brown, the Republican almost always described as “center-right” is easily the most conservative candidate to hold any office in the Bay State since the late Rep. Lawrence J. Curtis, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination from the right against liberal George Cabot Lodge (son of Henry) in 1962.
As Michael Barone noted on the morning after the election, “Brown’s victory was not just a rejection of Democrats’ health care plans. Brown also stoutly opposed the Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation to reduce carbon emissions. He spoke out strongly for trying terrorists like the Christmas bomber in military tribunals, not in the civil court system where lawyer would advise them to quit talking. . . on Afghanistan, where Obama is stepping up the fight, Brown backed Obama while his hapless left-wing opponent was forced (her word) to oppose it to win dovish votes in the Democratic primary.”
(The main issue on which Brown deviates from most right-of-center Republican office-seekers is on abortion. Like most GOP office-holders in Massachusetts, the senator-elect describes himself as “pro-choice,” although he opposes any tax dollars for abortions and is against partial birth abortion. Like Virginia’s McDonnell, Brown is a strong supporter of parental consent regarding abortion.)
Winning the “Displaced Center” — and Being Nice
In Brown’s case, all things came together. Massachusetts Republicans who normally engage in fratricide were united, with such intra-party enemies as conservative political consultant Holly Robichaud and the more moderate Kaufman both working hard for Brown. William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts and a Republican for Obama in ’08, stumped for Brown this time.
Motivated by Brown’s opposition to “Obamacare”, the Tea Party crowd that is newest to the political arena provided battalions of volunteers for the GOP hopeful. Recalling how the Brown campaign could not afford a pollster until the closing weeks of the campaign, Kaufman told me how the decision to focus the campaign on stopping “Obamacare” was “Scott’s and Scott’s alone. He talked to voters, listened carefully, and knew that Massachusetts voters, who are among the most sophisticated in the country, hated this plan and couldn’t afford it. It was a good message in the right political climate — the perfect storm, like the movie title.”
With a turnout of 2.1 million voters (or about 44% of those eligible to vote), Brown swept his fellow GOPers (about 12% of the registered voters) and made significant inroads into the Democratic vote (about 37%). About 44% of those who cast a vote for Obama in ’08 either voted for Brown, supported Libertarian candidate Joe Kennedy, or didn’t vote. Most importantly, Brown made major inroads in what syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker calls “the displaced center” — “unenrolled” (the term for unaffilailted voters in Massachusetts), whom comprise more than 51% of the electorate and gave 60%-to-7o% of their votes to Brown.
“And the tone is important,” concluded Phil Cox, emphasizing that both McDonnell and Brown were thoughtful and serious candidates who also came across as more pleasant and likeable than their opponents.
So a strong case can be made for results-oriented conservatism as a winning strategy — and for correcting Leo Durocher’s celebrated admonition. In Virginia and Massachusetts, at least, nice guys did finish first.