There’s a lot of buzz now that Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts left vacant after Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death. Both sides are trying to find the hidden meaning behind such an upset. Was it a referendum on President Obama’s job performance? Maybe a signal that voters are unhappy with the direction that health care reform has taken? General anger at Congress or specific anger at Democrats? While I’m sure these were mitigating factors, they completely ignore the real lesson to be learned, a lesson straight out of Political Science 101. And what lesson might that be?
All it takes is one word to define the campaign: arrogance, as in Coakley had plenty of it. She made an assumption that after winning the Democratic primary for the special election, she could coast to an easy victory on the wide margin of registered Democrats and endorsements from the late Sen. Kennedy’s relatives. As a result, she didn’t actively campaign for the office until polls showed that the race was very close. By then, it was far too late. Brown had positioned himself as a moderate and had taken control of the narrative. It also didn’t help that Coakley was about as personable as a stereotypical movie high school nurse. This wasn’t helped by her now infamous “Yankee fan”, “World Trade Center”, and “emergency room” flubs, none of which helped to make her appear more personable or in-touch with the state.
This was basically a perfect storm: a personable hard campaigner went head-to-head with an arrogant and lazy foot-in-mouth candidate and won the day. The lesson to be learned here is that running a strong campaign can make any seat unsafe, especially when the opponent is more-or-less asleep at the wheel. An advantage in registered voters means nothing if you do not retain that advantage at the polls. Reading any further than that into this special election may be fun or personally satisfying, but it distracts from the real lesson to be learned.
On a more local note, Utahns should be taking note. Republicans used to coasting to an easy victory can still lose races. Just look at what happened to Greg Curtis.