Politics & Government

Stealthy effort helped GOP's unlikely Massachusetts win

Senator John Cornyn and his wife, Sandy Cornyn.
Senator John Cornyn and his wife, Sandy Cornyn. Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

WASHINGTON _The stunning Republican come-from-behind victory in Massachusetts' special U.S. Senate election wasn't entirely a shock to Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The Texas Republican had led a stealth operation in the Bay State since December that quietly funneled top staffers, $1 million in cash and campaign knowhow to backstop Republican candidate Scott Brown.

While giving total credit to Brown for running a "perfect campaign," committee officials are thrilled that their effort may not have come to the Democrats' attention until it was too late.

"This was something we were playing close to the vest the whole time," Cornyn said in an interview. "We really caught the other side napping."

"We kept it all very, very quiet," committee spokesman Brian Walsh said.

A Huffington Post study based on AFL-CIO data concluded that Democrat Martha Coakley could have won by 2 points if union clout had been brought into the race sooner than the final days. She lost by 5 points.

State Democrats dispute that they were in the dark about the national Republicans being in the state.

"We were very much aware that this was a national election," said Tim Sullivan, the legislative and communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. "Contrary to popular belief, our side was running a campaign. When it came down to the race being a race, everyone got mobilized."

Tuesday's special election was to fill the remaining term of the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died in August.

"No one believed it was possible, especially in the bluest of blue states," Cornyn said. "But the political naysayers who discounted Brown's candidacy and anointed Democrat Martha Coakley after she won her party's nomination miscalculated one important factor: voters' utter dissatisfaction with the status quo."

It was that dissatisfaction that came to the committee's attention in December.

"We polled December 16th and 17th," Walsh said. "We heard there was a buzz about Brown. He was down 13 points. But we looked closely at the numbers and among those most likely to vote, he was 3 points behind."

Armed with that intelligence, as well as polling data that underscored the electorate's unhappiness with the health care bill being fought out in Congress, the Republican campaign staff swung into action.

On New Year's weekend, the committee dispatched several experienced staffers to Massachusetts and within a week cut a $500,000 check to the state's Republican committee to support Brown's effort.

"We kept that quiet," Walsh said, laughing, relishing the secretive backstage drama.

Cornyn spearheaded the effort, even monitoring the race while he was overseas on an official trip.

The Republican campaign committee, engaged in daily conference calls with the Brown campaign, soon saw polls moving upward and sent, by the end, 15 staffers. Among them was the committee's veteran political director, Randy Bumps, a former Republican New England operative who, Walsh said, "was embedded" in the Brown election effort.

"We had our staff there a full week before they did," he said of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's slow start.

The Republican National Committee sent an additional $500,000, bolstering fundraising that took off with Brown's strong performance in a debate in which he corrected moderator David Gergen for referring to the Senate vacancy as the "Kennedy seat," saying, "It's the people's seat."

"The debate was a big turning point," Walsh said. "It was getting increasingly clear, a week out, that he was ahead."

However, Republicans, now polling nightly, were careful not to share the data of Brown's surge so as not to alert the state's powerful Democratic machine.

Brown's campaign was helped by several Coakley missteps, such as her saying that she didn't see the point of "freezing" while shaking hands outside Fenway Park, which Brown did. She also mistakenly called former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a "Yankee fan."

Then there was an incident in Washington. Coakley had a fundraiser — which the Republican campaign helpfully publicized to reporters — where one of her supporters shoved a persistent reporter to the ground. Coakley had said she really didn't know much about the episode, but the committee had sent aides with video cameras and promptly posted the video on YouTube, showing Coakley, the state's attorney general, standing near the felled reporter.

For Cornyn the victory was "even sweeter that it was so unexpected."

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