BOSTON - In an epic upset in liberal Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown rode a wave of voter anger to win the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy for nearly half a century, leaving President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul in doubt and marring the end of his first year in office.
The loss by the once-favored Democrat Martha Coakley in the Democratic stronghold was a stunning embarrassment for the White House after Obama rushed to Boston on Sunday to try to save the foundering candidate.
Her defeat on Tuesday signaled big political problems for the president’s party this fall when House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot nationwide.
“I have no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient.”
Brown will become the 41st Republican in the 100-member Senate, which could allow the GOP to block the president’s health care legislation. Democrats needed Coakley to win for a 60th vote to thwart Republican filibusters.
The trouble may go deeper: Democratic lawmakers could read the results as a vote against Obama’s broader agenda, weakening their support for the president.
And the results could scare some Democrats from seeking office this fall. The Republican will finish Kennedy’s unexpired term, facing re-election in 2012.
Brown led by 52 per cent to 47 percent with all but 3 percent of precincts counted. Turnout was exceptional for a special election in January, with light snow reported in parts of the state. More voters showed up at the polls Tuesday than in any non-presidential general election in Massachusetts since 1990.
One day shy of the first anniversary of Obama’s swearing-in, the election played out amid a backdrop of animosity and resentment from voters over persistently high unemployment, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and partisan wrangling over health care.
“I voted for Obama because I wanted change. ... I thought he’d bring it to us, but I just don’t like the direction that he’s heading,” said John Triolo, 38, a registered independent who voted in Fitchburg.
He said his frustrations, including what he considered the too-quick pace of health care legislation, led him to vote for Brown.
For weeks considered a long shot, Brown seized on voter discontent to overtake Coakley in the campaign’s final stretch. His candidacy energized Republicans, including backers of the “tea party” protest movement, while attracting disappointed Democrats and independents uneasy with where they felt the nation was heading.
A cornerstone of Brown’s campaign was his promise to vote against the health care plan.
Though the president wasn’t on the ballot, he was on many voters’ minds.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said he would notify the U.S. Senate on Wednesday that Brown had been elected. Originally, he had said he might take over two weeks to certify the results of the special election, giving Democrats a window in which to try to rush through final passage of Obama’s health care plan.
Even before the first results were announced, administration officials were privately accusing Coakley of a poorly run campaign and playing down the notion that Obama or a toxic political landscape had much to do with the outcome.
Coakley’s supporters, in turn, blamed that very environment, saying her lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas and after the Christmas Day attempted airliner bombing that Obama himself said showed a failure of his administration.
Days before the polls closed, Democrats were fingerpointing and laying blame.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the House Democrats’ campaign effort, said Coakley’s loss won’t deter his colleagues from continuing to blame the previous administration. “President George W. Bush and House Republicans drove our economy into a ditch and tried to run away from the accident,” he said. “President Obama and congressional Democrats have been focused repairing the damage to our economy.”
Even before Brown won, the grass-roots network fueled by antiestablishment frustrations, sought credit for the victory, much like the liberal MoveOn.org did in the 2006 midterm elections when Democrats rose to power.
GOP chairman Michael Steele said Brown’s “message of lower taxes, smaller government and fiscal responsibility clearly resonated with
independent-minded voters in Massachusetts who were looking for a solution to decades of failed Democrat leadership.”
Wall Street watched the election closely. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 116 points, and analysts attributed the increase to hopes the election would make it harder for Obama to make his changes to health care. That eased investor concerns that profits at companies such as insurers and drug makers would suffer.
Across Massachusetts, voters who had been bombarded with phone calls and dizzied with nonstop campaign commercials for Coakley and Brown gave a fitting turnout despite intermittent snow and rain statewide.
Galvin, who discounted sporadic reports of voter irregularities throughout the day, predicted turnout ranging from 1.6 million to 2.2 million, 40 percent to 55 percent of registered voters. The Dec. 8 primary had a scant turnout of about 20 percent.
Voters considered national issues including health care and the federal budget deficits.
Fears about spending drove Karla Bunch, 49, to vote for Brown. “It’s time for the country, for the taxpayers, to take back their money,” she said. And Elizabeth Reddin, 65, voted for Brown because she said she was turned off by the Democrat’s negative advertisements, saying: “The Coakley stuff was disgusting.”