Tuesday’s Result Raises New Questions for Both Parties

January 22, 2010 · 8:30 AM EST

Now what?

Republican Scott Brown’s clear victory over Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) to fill the remainder of the term of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) is shocking, given the state’s Democratic bent, recent showings by Republican federal candidates in Massachusetts and the GOP’s demise in New England over the past 15 years.

In 2008, President Barack Obama carried Massachusetts with 62 percent of the vote, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won re-election with 66 percent. On Tuesday, just 14 months after Obama and Kerry steamrolled their opponents in the Bay State, Coakley drew just 47 percent of the vote to Brown’s 52 percent.

The last Republican to win a Senate election in Massachusetts was Ed Brooke in 1972, and although Ronald Reagan narrowly carried Massachusetts twice in his presidential races, no Republican White House nominee has drawn 52 percent of the vote in Massachusetts since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Want a better idea how pathetic the Bay State GOP has been until this week’s special election? The Massachusetts state Senate has 34 Democrats and only 4 Republicans (with one vacancy), while the state House of Representatives has 144 Democrats and 16 Republicans. That’s right — 16 Republicans out of a total of 160 state Representatives.

So Brown’s victory certainly changes things in Massachusetts, and more importantly in Washington, D.C., but it won’t be entirely clear for a while exactly what those changes are or what they mean.

Democratic leaders from Obama to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) surely still want a health care reform bill, and they’ll have to decide how to proceed.

Talk before the special election that they’d have to scrap everything if Brown won is true on one level but hyperbole on another.

Yes, Democrats now need at least one Republican vote in the Senate to pass a bill, so Brown’s election fundamentally changes the arithmetic on Capitol Hill. But Democrats still have more than an 80-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a 59-41 majority in the Senate, meaning that they haven’t exactly been emasculated by the Brown victory.

Instead, the Democratic majority will now have to do what every other Congress over the past 30 years has had to do — pass legislation with at least some support from the minority party.

Obviously, the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders need to sit down and figure out how to proceed under the new reality.

Some have suggested that Democrats try to jam the Senate bill through the House so that the president can sign it immediately, but that would require a dramatic change in the attitude of liberal Democrats who find the Senate bill distasteful.

Moreover, any strategy adopted by Capitol Hill Democrats that smacks of frustrating the will of Massachusetts voters and dismissing the general public’s growing doubts about health care reform would only give Republicans more ammunition.

An OnMessage Inc. poll conducted for the Republican National Committee just before the special election asked 500 likely voters whether they would be more or less likely to vote for Brown if they knew that he “would be the deciding vote against the health care reform plan currently being discussed in Congress.”

The results — 43 percent said they would be more likely, 33 percent said they would be less likely and 21 percent responded that it would make no difference — have to be more than a little unsettling to Democratic officeholders from conservative, Republican or swing districts. Some of them may well decide that the only way for them to survive politically later this year is to vote against their party’s leadership on key public policy initiatives.

But could a Brown victory give Democrats an opportunity to regain their footing and even redefine the 2010 midterms? Possibly.

Since Brown’s election kills a Democrat-only health care bill, it could also force Democrats to be more sensitive to the voters — not just base Democratic constituencies. In other words, the shock of a Republican win in Massachusetts might just bring national Democrats, including the president, back to reality.

Democratic prospects in November’s midterms rest directly on the economy, and Coakley’s loss may convince Democratic leaders that the party needs to spend more time on jobs and less on health care or climate change.

Finally, Democrats could ultimately benefit from the fallout of the special election if Republicans exaggerate their own popularity and start to assume the inevitability of a landslide in November.

Voters don’t like arrogance — or being taken for granted (as Tuesday’s results show) — and Republicans can’t afford to look too partisan, especially if Democrats reach out to the GOP in a serious and substantive way to tackle the nation’s very real problems.

I wrote just two days ago in this space that a Brown victory would be the biggest political upset of my adult life. Now that it has happened — and even though I changed my rating of the race Monday to Lean Takeover — I still have a hard time believing that Democrats have lost Kennedy’s seat.