Why Coakley lost

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It was the political equivalent of the USA hockey team upsetting the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. Of Buster Douglas ko’ing Mike Tyson.

Last week in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, where the governor, both senators, and all ten members of the state’s congressional delegation are Democrats, a previously- unknown Republican state senator, Scott Brown, was elected to the US Senate seat held for 47 years by the late Ted Kennedy. Brown defeated his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, who had been expected to win comfortably (as Democrats always seem to do in Massachusetts).

The ramifications of this shocker are sure to be felt nationwide, especially as it relates to the embattled health care bill now being reconciled in Congress. By depriving the Democrats of the crucial 60th vote necessary to stave off a Republican-led filibuster, the election seems to have put the health care bill on life-support.

Even before the votes had been counted, pundits were busy explaining how the safest of Democratic Senate seats could fall into Republican hands.  The general concurrence was that the election had not been primarily about Massachusetts, but a reflection of a national discontent with the way things are going in Washington, especially as relates to the health care reform bill, which a majority of Americans now oppose.

The voters of Massachusetts were sending a message to Washington: When we voted for change in 2008 we did not vote for a massive governmental intrusion into our lives, nor were we opting for the taxman to grab an ever-expanding share of our hard-earned money.

In other words, don’t blame Martha Coakley for the loss; the fault lies with the Obama administration’s arrogance and condescending attitude in its belief that it alone knows what is best regardless of evidence to the contrary. Besides, a national unemployment rate that stubbornly persists at 10% is not engendering any good will for the administration either. Of course, the Obama spin-doctors were having none of that; they assigned blame for the loss exclusively to Coakley, whom they accused of running a lackluster campaign.

Undoubtedly, Massachusetts voters were sending a message to Washington. Just as the electorate voted for change in 2008, so it did again barely 15 months later. However, while the referendum on Obama and his policies might have made what would otherwise have been a typical Massachusetts Democratic landslide into a horserace, unlike many others, I do not believe that the election was decided as a result. There is just too much of a Democratic dominance in the Bay State to attribute such a thorough repudiation solely to national discontent.

After all, Brown did not merely squeak through; he won with a very comfortable 100,0000+ vote margin–nearly six percentage points.  The White House, with some validity, ascribes blame for the embarrassment to Coakley, but the reasons go well beyond her failure to mount a formidable campaign. Sure, she might have been a lackluster candidate, but there have been many a Democrat in Massachusetts whose similarly yawn-inducing campaigns nevertheless got them elected and re-elected. Instead, her defeat can better be attributed to her having lost touch with her state’s voters, often the electoral kiss-of-death of politicians everywhere.

The most notorious example of this disconnect was her response to a radio interviewer’s query regarding her reaction to the endorsement of her opponent by Red Sox icon Curt Schilling. Her response, that Schilling is “another Yankee fan,” manifested an utter contempt for and alienation from the overwhelming majority of those throughout her state who consider themselves a part of the Red Sox Nation. It is very difficult to overstate the emotional attachment that New Englanders have to their beloved Sox, who are a crucial component of the area’s social and cultural fabric. To hurl the ultimate insult, that of being a Yankees fan, at the man who was instrumental in leading the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series title, thereby ending the infamous 86 year old “curse” that originated following the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, whether out of ignorance or just to “diss” a supporter of her opponent, demonstrated at best a naïve repudiation of her state’s ethos. Imagine a candidate for statewide office in Texas disrespecting the memory of those who fought and died at the Alamo.

Would Brown have triumphed had Coakley not uttered her Schilling insult? Perhaps. But there can be no doubt that her remark, perhaps more sub-consciously in the minds of the voters than overtly, played a role in her defeat. Polling numbers seem to confirm this. Surveys released on the Thursday before the election, the day of the radio interview, showed a very tight race, with Coakley hanging on to a three or four point lead. Polls released the Sunday before the election showed Brown leading anywhere from four to nine points.

Were there other factors in play that might have accounted for the swing? Quite possibly. But to dismiss her ill-timed remark as unrelated to the overall result flies in the face of a long held and highly reliable political maxim: Lose touch with the voters, lose the election.

Nathan Mitzner is a junior risk management insurance major. He can be reached for comment at nmitzner@smu.edu.

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