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Voters Send a Different Message as Republican Wins

Adam Nagourney|The New York Times
Wednesday, 20 Jan 2010 | 5:14 AM ET

Special elections come and go. And the party that wins the White House one year ordinarily loses seats in the next Congressional election that comes along.

Republican State Sen. Scott Brown exits the debate hall following a senatorial debate at the University of Massachusetts January 11, 2010 in Boston.
Darren McCollester | Getty Images
Republican State Sen. Scott Brown exits the debate hall following a senatorial debate at the University of Massachusetts January 11, 2010 in Boston.

But what happened in Massachusetts on Tuesday was no ordinary special election.

Scott Brown, a Republican state senator for only five years, shocked and arguably humiliated the White House and the Democratic Party establishment by defeating Martha Coakley in the race for a United States Senate seat. He did it one day short of a year after President Obama stood on the steps of the United States Capitol, looking across a mass of faces that celebrated the potential of his presidency.

As a result, Mr. Obama will spend the first anniversary of his inauguration watching Democrats tangle in an unseemly quarrel over who lost Massachusetts — Ms. Coakley’s pollster, Celinda Lake, called the Huffington Post four hours before the polls closed to blame Democratic leaders in Washington — and contemplating a political landscape that has been thoroughly upended in the course of only 10 days.

The implications are sure to be far-reaching, and the result leaves Mr. Obama with a long list of tough choices.

Stripped of the 60th vote needed to block Republican filibusters in the Senate, will he now make further accommodations to Republicans in an effort to move legislation through Congress with more bipartisanship, even at the cost of further alienating liberals annoyed at what they see as his ideological malleability?

Or will he seek to rally his party’s base through confrontation, even if it means giving up on getting much done this year?

Will he find a way to ram his health care bill through Congress quickly in the wake of the Massachusetts loss, so that his party can run on a major if controversial accomplishment? Or will he heed the warnings of Republicans, and now some Democrats, that to do so would be to ignore the message of Tuesday’s election, with its clear overtones of dissatisfaction with the administration’s approach so far?

It is not just questions of policy: for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, already worried about the coming midterm elections, the results could hardly have been more distressing. States do not come more Democratic than Massachusetts, the only one that voted for George McGovern over Richard Nixon in 1972, a fact that older residents still recount with fresh pride. By challenging the legacy of Edward M. Kennedy, the holder of the contested seat for 46 years and a liberal icon, the Republican victory could only be dispiriting to the left.

Most ominously, independent voters — who embraced Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and are an increasingly critical constituency — seemed to have fled to Mr. Brown in Massachusetts, as they did to Republicans in races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey last November. It is hard not to view that as a repudiation of the way Mr. Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders have run things.

“This is a giant wake-up call,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in Virginia last year. “We have to keep our focus on job creation. Everything we have to do is related to job creation. We have to do a much better job on the message. People are confused on what this health care bill is going to do.”

Even before the polls closed, the White House was suggesting the outlines of a recovery strategy, a combination of a more populist tone and an embrace of greater fiscal responsibility.

Mr. Obama has signaled that he intends to take a more populist stance on financial regulation legislation in Congress, seeking to position Democrats as defenders of the people against Wall Street, and to cast Republicans as defenders of bonus-laden bankers. And on Tuesday night, the White House brokered a deal that could lead to a bipartisan commission to recommend spending cuts and tax increases to address the nation’s fiscal condition. For months, Mr. Obama’s advisers had warned that the perception that budget deficits and the national debt were spiraling out of control was alienating independent voters already turned off by partisan battling.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said he did not view the results as a repudiation of the White House’s agenda, but he acknowledged that the administration needed to do a more effective job of signaling concern about the problems gripping Americans.

“We are the party in power, and as such there’s an element of responsibility assigned,” he said. “I think people need to know that their challenges and their concerns are the focus of our work every day.”

Ms. Coakley lost in no small part because of what many Democrats viewed as a stumbling campaign against a sharp and focused opponent. There is a good argument that the outcome was as much an anti-incumbent wave during tough economic times as it was an anti-Democratic wave. And there is still time before the midterm elections for the economy to rebound in a way that benefits Democratic candidates, and for Mr. Obama to make a case that the health care legislation, if he finds a way to sign it into law, will benefit the hard-pressed middle class.

Still, Ms. Coakley’s defeat could easily be seen as evidence that the Obama White House is out of step with much of the American public — pushing through a health care plan at a time when many voters are primarily concerned about unemployment.

Mr. Obama could find it more difficult to get moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats in Congress to cast politically tough votes.

It will be lost on few in the House or the Senate that the Democratic defeat in an overwhelmingly Democratic state came despite a last-minute personal appeal from Mr. Obama, who campaigned here for Ms. Coakley on Sunday. This suggests that Mr. Obama may be of limited or no help to candidates in close elections. No less important, he may not have much leverage to stop them from defying him in Washington.

“I think there’s been a misreading of where the public is at: having a health care debate when so many people were focused on their jobs,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic political consultant who managed the presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2004.

“The failure to understand how anti-establishment the country has become is a big part of the problem,” Mr. Trippi said of Mr. Obama and the White House. “He actually led the way on that in the campaign and didn’t recognize what was happening as he was president.”

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