The Scott Brown Effect and Its Consequences

Senator-elect Scott Brown offers such a perfect roadmap for Republicans in 2010 that it is worth deconstructing his campaign to draw the key lessons for the next nine months.

First, the stakes are huge. The potential for a radically different course for American history thanks to Scott Brown's senatorial win is quite real. Consider the magnitude of Mr. Brown's achievement: His capture of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat was based on an unambiguous promise to fight the march toward universal health care in the United States, which Kennedy himself described as the seminal cause of his life. And it was a fight which seemed destined to fail: Twelve Senate elections had occurred since a Republican last won a Senate race in Massachusetts (in 1972). Mr. Kennedy averaged more than 66% in his six election wins since then, including 69% of the vote in 2006; John Kerry, meanwhile, won 66-31% over his Republican opponent just fourteen months ago on the same day that Barack Obama won the state 62-36% over John McCain. Further, Martha Coakley, Brown's opponent, carried 73% of the vote in her statewide contest for Attorney General in 2006.

In a state where, according to the Rasmussen polling organization, 53% of voters self-identify as Democrats compared to 21% as Republicans, the prior history made this Senate seat all but impregnable for Democrats. Indeed, the outcome seemed so foregone that well-known Republicans in the state such as Andrew Card begged out of the race, leaving Mr. Brown to his sacrificial fate. And the public polling done in November and December affirmed this: Mr. Brown trailed Attorney General Coakley by 20-30 points throughout the fall, in a state where 56% of all voters considered Mr. Obama's signature issue, health care reform, to be the most important current challenge.

Further, in an irony matched only by the race being for Kennedy's old seat and dominated by his issue, the Massachusetts Democratic machine is so powerful that they had changed the election rules for U.S. Senate races twice in recent years on short notice: first to protect the seat in case John Kerry vacated it in 2004, and then again in 2009 to ensure representative continuity after Mr. Kennedy's death. Democratic Party power in the Bay State is close to invincible, and in an unusually high turnout for a special election (over 2.2 million voters versus 2.8 million in November 2008), there could be no rational expectation of Republican victory. Truly, Massachusetts is the "bluest of the blue" states, as established by being the only state in the union carried by George McGovern in 1972.

Against these gale force winds and seemingly insurmountable odds, Mr. Brown crisscrossed the state in the finest traditions of retail politics, showing himself to be a genuine person in an age of thoroughgoing phonies populating the political class. Brown evinced a dogged determination to carry a simple message to voters, starting most prominently with the promise to be the 41st  senator for procedural checks on the Obama agenda. That resonated with voters, along with his support of tax and spending cuts, total transparency and honesty in governing, and common sense in defense policy. (Mr. Brown is also against harmful carbon energy taxes, against illegal immigrant amnesty, tough on crime, and takes a states' rights approach on social issues.)  

Brown campaign insiders say his numbers turned dramatically after airing television ads, beginning December 30th, touting the benefit of John F. Kennedy's 1963-64 tax cuts. Further, he scored well in three debates between January 5-11, making his intention to check Obama's spending and government expansion designs clear to viewing voters. Also a factor were many helpful endorsements, from popular Boston radio host Howie Carr to the Boston Herald and other local print media, as well as national media exposure in the final two weeks of the campaign.

As a result of this media exposure and Mr. Brown's simple, repetitive, and highly effective messaging -- well-suited to a truncated campaign period after early December primaries -- Massachusetts voters were highly informed by election day of the contrast he presented to the Obama agenda. As such, Brown's victory -- again, in Massachusetts, of all places -- is a stunning repudiation of the thesis that Obama's win in 2008 represented any sort of sea change in what is still essentially a center-right American electorate. Indeed, Mr. Brown raised $13 million in the final eighteen days of the campaign, and a nationwide telephone poll conducted by Rasmussen on election day cut 49%-34% in favor of Brown, with 17% undecided.

Rasmussen's post-election analysis revealed the crux of Mr. Brown's victory: near-parity on health care and decisive margins on most other important issues. For voters who regarded health care as the seminal issue at the moment, Ms. Coakley carried the vote 53%-46%. Yet this was only due to the intensity of Obama supporters in the state: of those supporting the president on health care, Coakley won 97% (yet 51% of Massachusetts voters oppose health care plans before Congress). For those who regarded the economy as the top issue, Mr. Brown won 52% of their vote. Where tax levels were most worrisome, Brown won 87% of the vote, and for those regarding national defense as the top issue, Brown carried 67%.

Given the foregoing, the following are key lessons and implications from Scott Brown's improbable win:

(a).  As Senator 41, and more importantly, coming from Massachusetts, Mr. Brown has upset the political calculus inside the Beltway even before being seated.  The Obama agenda is now substantially stalled, and confirmation of this is nowhere more on display than in the words of pundits or politicians sympathetic to Obama: blame is variously assigned to a weak Coakley campaign, to sexist voters in the Bay State, to voter anger over "Washington" or, from the President himself, over "the last eight years" of failed policies.  Psychologists call that denial, a phenomenon last seen starkly in American politics in 1994.  

(b).  Again, the fact that this was Massachusetts -- indeed, Teddy Kennedy's seat, in a rigged-rules election --  and not Kansas or South Carolina, along with the fact that Mr. Brown was a candidate who unambiguously succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction between the Obama/Coakley worldview and his own, represent details of capital importance.  These are a potential dagger in the heart of the entire Obama enterprise.  And Mr. Brown's effective communication of his message along with his points of contrast with Obama reaffirm a political truism reiterated by Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Rush Limbaugh: when Republicans effectively differentiate their platform in favor of free enterprise, limited government, economic growth, and strong defense, they win elections over statist Democrats.  What President Nixon called the "Silent Majority" is today the center-right core of the body politic, and this is where elections are won.   To say this differently, the difference between Mr. Brown and Ms. Coakley was stark and clear in voters' minds; the difference between Messrs. Obama and McCain a year ago was less so.  That is to say, Mr. McCain did not lose because he was "too much like Bush", so much as he was not different enough from Mr. Obama, to the center-right core (which at the time was also, admittedly, rattled by a financial market meltdown that the incumbent had only stoked).        

(c).  Mr. Brown, in a de facto sense, nationalized this election.  Though (brilliantly) left unspoken, his opponent was not Ms. Coakley, for Massachusetts voters; it was Barack Obama.  Again, it is crucial for Republicans to understand this, and ominous for Democrats that, so far, they do not.

(d).  Mr. Brown's genuine authenticity, and his ability to show this in his communication style, is a competitive advantage in modern politics precisely because it is so rare.  Ms. Coakley carried the high-income precincts surrounding Harvard, in the Berkshires, and in Provincetown, but Mr. Brown won the middle class vote, and came close among union members, losing 52-46%.  Additionally, Mr. Brown is the antithesis of an elitist, and the embodiment of American values: on election night he electrified the crowd with such common-sense lines as his preference to pay for weapons to stop terrorists, rather than lawyers to defend them.

Time will tell, but it is possible that Scott Brown's election will prove to be highly consequential.  As President, Mr. Obama has been a failure. He has pursued a statist agenda which guarantees higher taxes, sluggish growth and job creation, more financial and monetary troubles, and a declining standard of living.  He has engendered a level of fear and uncertainty in the investor and job-creating entrepreneurial classes not seen in this country since the 1930s.  And his seemingly unremitting apologies for past American transgressions, as well as inane decisions such as a $250 million criminal trial in New York City of an already-confessed jihadist combatant like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are intensely unpopular with a center-right core electorate steeped in middle-class values.   

Mr. Brown, in contrast, represents an effective antidote to Obama's demagoguery and failed leftist paradigm.  His capture of Ted Kennedy's seat of 47 years, in Massachusetts, in an election dominated by the promise (or threat) of universal health care, is as historic as it is ironic.  For Republicans, there could not be a clearer roadmap to electoral success this fall.        

Mr. Chapman is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Contact him at