Posted on Tue, Jan. 19, 2010
last updated: March 15, 2013 11:58:09 AM
BOSTON — In a stunning upset, Republican Scott Brown, a little-known state senator just weeks ago, Tuesday trounced Democrat Martha Coakley to win a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat and jolt Washington's Democratic leaders with a victory that imperils President Barack Obama's agenda, led by his bid to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Brown, 50, mobilized voters in one of the nation's most Democratic states — voters frustrated by the sluggish economy, angry about big government and uneasy about changes in health care. He led Coakley, 56, who conceded defeat shortly before 10 P.M., by 52 to 47 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
With his victory, the first time since 1972 that a Republican has won a Massachusetts Senate race, Brown will take the "Kennedy seat" occupied by Sen. Edward Kennedy for 47 years before his death in August and once held by John F. Kennedy before he became president in 1961.
The Coakley loss is sure to reverberate well beyond this state. It's potentially a huge blow to Obama, who on Wednesday marks the first anniversary of his inauguration.
But instead of the adulatory throngs that lined the National Mall last Jan. 20 to hail the new chief, Obama now faces the result of a virtual referendum on not only health care but the Democrats' year-old stewardship of the federal government in a state he won in 2008 with 61.8 percent of the vote.
"Scott Brown caught the wave," Massachusetts Democratic consultant Dan Payne said. "People are worried about jobs, angry about Wall Street bonuses, upset about the deals being made for health care legislation, afraid of nuts like the underwear bomber. Nothing seems to be going well except stock prices."
Democrats got another message from the Bay State Tuesday: Republicans have fresh momentum heading into November's mid-term elections, when 37 Senate seats _19 now held by Democrats, 18 by Republicans — and all 435 House of Representatives members will be up for election.
"Republicans are fired up. This tells you they're ready to get out and work," said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the Brown triumph sent a clear message: "There's a reason the nation was focused on this race," he said. "The voters in Massachusetts, like Americans everywhere, have made it abundantly clear where they stand on health care."
Obama called both Brown and Coakley as the results became clear.
"The president congratulated Sen. Brown on his victory and a well-run campaign," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. Obama thanked Coakley, whom he campaigned for in Boston Sunday, for "her hard work."
Coakley, speaking to a subdued group of supporters at a downtown Boston hotel, quoted Kennedy's reminder that "the dream lives on," and told the crowd she was "heartbroken." She also said: "Sometimes it's more important to travel hopefully than to arrive and we will continue to travel hopefully, I know that."
Brown's crowd at a nearby hotel was more raucous.
"Tonight the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken," he said. About half the state's voters are independents.
Brown also reached out to Kennedy loyalists. He called Vicki Kennedy, the former senator's widow, and told her that her husband's name "will always command the affection and respect of the people of Massachusetts"
Democrats said they're well aware of the political danger posed by the prospect of more such victories.
"We're all pretty unpopular," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "Why? Because people don't feel good. We're the leaders and we're in office, and they expect us to do something about it."
Brown, expected to be sworn in early next month, will become the 41st Republican senator _his crowd Tuesday night chanted "41" and "Seat Him Now" _a number that's just enough to allow Republicans to block any legislation indefinitely in the Senate if they stick together. Democrats currently control 60 seats, just enough to defeat delaying tactics.
Sen. James Webb, D-Va., issued a statement calling on his party's leadership in Congress to hold no more votes on health-care legislation until Brown is sworn into office.
The first clue about what the Massachusetts election means is expected to be visible quickly as Congress tries to finish work on health care.
The House of Representatives passed its version Nov. 7, and the Senate approved its bill Dec. 24. Congressional leaders and Obama have been negotiating privately for the past week, trying to craft a compromise.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday, before the results were known, that while Obama was "not pleased" about the tight Massachusetts race, "I don't believe that there's an entirely new agenda behind some door based on the results of tonight."
A Brown victory would complicate matters, since it would require a 60th Senate vote to be found; one possibility would be Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted for the health legislation last fall in the Senate Finance Committee but voted no on final passage.
There are other alternatives. The House could approve the Senate's bill, clearing it for Obama's signature, though that could be tough, because the Senate version contains a 40 percent tax on high-end insurance policies that's highly unpopular with labor unions and a lot of Democratic liberals.
However, Hoyer said, "The Senate bill is clearly better than nothing," without endorsing that approach.
Another option is to delay seating the new senator. State officials have to certify the results, which usually takes at least 10 days, and then it's up to Senate leaders to decide when to swear in the new member. Hoyer said it was feasible that Congress could send the president a health care bill within the next 15 days.
Coakley had appeared headed for an easy win until about a month ago, but then came three crucial twists. First, she lacked the passion that Democrats expect from statewide candidates. "Her campaign has no urgency, no forward thrust," Payne said.
The Senate vote on the Democrats' health plan was also costly. Though Republican delaying tactics pushed the Senate to vote on Dec. 24 for the first time since 1895, many voters looked upon the pre-dawn vote as politics at its seamiest.
"It looked like Democrats were trying to stuff that bill down our throats," said Ray Gallagher, a postal worker from Everett, a Boston suburb.
According to a Coakley campaign memo that the journalism organization Politico obtained, her support dropped "significantly" when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., cut a last-minute deal to get federal taxpayers to cover all Medicaid funding for his state; other states split those costs with Washington. He's since asked that the provision be dropped.
Finally, on Christmas Day, a Nigerian man allegedly attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane, bringing terrorism issues back into the spotlight. Coakley, a veteran prosecutor, defended the Obama administration's decision to try the suspect as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant.
A lot of voters were appalled. "We shouldn't try terrorists in civilian courts," said Mike Keefe, a lawyer and registered Democrat from Arlington, a Boston suburb.
Voters started to look more closely at the amiable Brown, a one-time Cosmopolitan centerfold and veteran National Guardsman who campaigned in his truck to burnish his "regular guy" image.
(William Douglas, Margaret Talev and Steven Thomma contributed to this article from Washington.)
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