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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

MA Meltdown: The Local Buzz

After reading my favorite pundits’ unsurprising takes on Coakley’s MA meltdown, I thought I’d check out the Beantown rags, to see if they had any fresh angles. After all, these are the folks who saw the ad campaigns, heard the buzz in the watering holes and supermarkets and followed the story longer than those based elsewhere. Here’s the skinny from The Globe‘s Brian C. Mooney:

Brown, an obscure state senator with an unremarkable record when he entered the race four months ago, was a household name across the country by the end of the abbrevi ated campaign. Running a vigorous, smart, and error-free campaign, he became a vessel into which cranky and worried voters poured their frustrations and fears…To be sure, Brown was the beneficiary of the blundering campaign of his opponent, Coakley, who blew a 31-point lead in two months, according to one poll. But in electing Brown, a large segment of the electorate declared that there is little appetite for near-universal national health care, the chief domestic policy initiative of Obama, who carried the state by 26 percentage points only 14 months ago.
Brown skillfully made the election a referendum on the issue, nationalizing the race when he repeatedly said he would be the 41st vote in the Senate, enough for the GOP to block the Democrats’ bill. Money poured in from around the country. His campaign had an initial budget of $1.2 million but eventually spent $13 million, about $12 million of which came in via the Internet, a campaign official said last night.

So how bad was Coakley’s campaign? Mooney adds,

…Brown withstood the most blistering assault of late attack ads the state has ever seen. As Coakley began to collapse, her campaign, Democratic Party committees, outside organized labor, and environmental and abortion rights groups bankrolled a desperate multimillion-dollar carpet bombing ad campaign in an effort to halt Brown’s surge. It backfired. The ads, some of which distorted Brown’s record, created a blowback that scorched the Democrat. Coakley entered the campaign as a well-liked politician and ended with high negative poll ratings. She will probably face withering recriminations in Democratic circles, and her weakened status could produce a challenger to her reelection in the fall.

And perhaps most tellingly:

…The unflinching Brown had much more experience in tough partisan elections than Coakley, and it showed in this campaign. In 2004, the Republican won a close special election and November rematch to capture and then hold his state Senate seat. Coakley, by contrast, won the offices of attorney general and Middlesex district attorney over token Republican opponents.
Brown’s chief consultants were battle-tested not only in bruising state elections but also at the national level. Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers, and Peter Flaherty, all principals of The Shawmut Group, were veterans of Mitt Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial and 2008 presidential campaigns. They provided strategic advice, developed the communications plan, and created Brown’s distinctive and highly effective television advertisements..

Mooney goes on to describe a controversial Brown ad, which got lots of attention, featuring JFK morphing into Brown, running 5 days, with no Coakley response, apparently because of “her run-out-the-clock strategy.”
In his article “How Brown Won,” David S. Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix adds to Mooney’s point about Brown’s campaign advisors:

Give credit to the brain trust behind Brown’s campaign: Mitt Romney’s top people, bred in Massachusetts politics and trained at the top levels of presidential combat. They were assembled on the stage at Park Plaza last night: Beth Myers, Beth Lindstrom, Peter Flaherty, Eric Fehrnstrom (texting away even as Brown delivered his victory speech), and of course the former governor himself, taking a victory lap in front of a national audience of cable-watching conservatives (and potential 2012 primary voters).
Watching them, it occurred to me that the same group spent most of 2007 traipsing across Iowa, having built the Romney strategy around winning that state’s caucuses; and that during that time they may have picked up a lesson or two from watching another campaign that bet heavily on Iowa: Barack Obama’s.
As that campaign’s manager David Plouffe describes in The Audacity To Win, Obama’s strategists knew from the start that they could not beat Hillary Clinton among the people who normally participate in caucuses. Thus, they had to expand the playing field — greatly increase the number (and type) of participants, so that the people who don’t normally vote would overwhelm the regulars.
Brown faced the same dilemma. It was widely accepted that turnout for the special election would be no more than 30 percent, or 1.2 million people — and that number would include more than 600,000 who had already voted in the Democratic primary. The math isn’t difficult.
If you like poker analogies, Coakley had a winning five-card hand, so Brown decided to make it a seven-card game.
…They did their job with Brown brilliantly, turning the well-to-do political hack suburbanite into a pickup-driving man of the people. And Brown, like Romney, is an outstanding candidate: disciplined, hard-working, and malleable.

The coverage in the Boston Herald was less revealing, other than relating U.S. Rep. Barney Frank’s assessment: “Martha Coakley was a lousy candidate. She let herself get involved in a personality debate.”
Mooney also notes that “Brown worked the talk radio circuit relentlessly…” All in all, the local accounts make it sound more like Coakley was outmaneuvered and outworked, and less like a pivotal majority was all that bent out of shape about the Democrats’ health care reforms. Absent any exit poll data, however, it’s impossible to say how much voter discontent about unemployment and the bailout influenced the vote. But it appears that Dems have been bested in candidate recruitment and campaign management in MA, as we were in the VA governor’s race.

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