The Rasmussen poll was at once a turning point in terms of harnessing support for Brown, but at the same time, a wake-up call for the Coakley campaign.
Much has been made of Coakley’s gaffes, and there were plenty. From the snide comment about shaking hands in the cold outside Fenway Park, to the ill-timed lobbyist fundraiser in Washington, D.C., and subsequent scuffle with a reporter, Coakley defined herself as an elitist insider.
Coakley also did herself no favor by refusing to debate Brown one-on-one. By insisting on the participation of independent candidate Joe Kennedy at every debate, Coakley perpetuated her perceived sense of entitlement.
The spat with Curt Schilling not only infuriated Red Sox fans, but also painted Coakley as a petty politician. Do we really expect a senator to put someone down by calling them a Yankees fan? Coakley was running for the Senate, not third-grade lunch monitor.
None of these missteps, however, were sufficient for Brown’s victory. The missteps were a reaction to the late realization that Brown had the momentum and that Coakley was ill-equipped, both temperamentally and in campaign organization, to mount a counter-offensive in the last 10 days of the campaign.
The last-minute negative attacks by Coakley epitomized a campaign in disarray. The television ads regarding the “morning-after” pill were transparent scare tactics on an issue not central to the debate. The now-notorious rape mailer was offensive and almost certainly did more harm than good. The related quip that people who did not want to give out the morning-after pill for religious reasons should not work in emergency rooms exhibited a shocking political tone-deafness.
Other Democrats exacerbated these gaffes by floating the idea that they might delay seating Brown should he win in order to pass the health care bill. This possibility infuriated voters and contributed to the view that Coakley merely was part of a political machine. President Obama’s swipe at Brown’s truck perpetuated the view that Brown was a man of the people.
These missteps by Coakley, and Brown’s adroit campaign, were necessary but not sufficient factors in Brown’s victory. Starting with the JFK video, Brown alone successfully established a sense of history in his campaign, much as Barack Obama had in his presidential run.
Brown Seizes History
By the time of the only televised debate on January 11, the country was gripped with interest in the race. Still over a week out from the election, either side could win, and conventional wisdom still made Coakley the clear favorite.
But Brown had his moment in history. David Gergen, echoing a Coakley campaign theme, aggressively pressed Brown over his opposition to Democratic health care proposals, and whether Brown was worthy of the “Kennedy seat.” Brown’s response — that it was not the Kennedy seat or the Democrat’s seat, but “the people’s seat” — was the defining moment of the campaign.
In that moment, Brown created a sense of history and claimed it as his own. The line reminded me of John Kennedy’s inaugural speech, in which Kennedy spoke of the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. And that new generation was embodied by Scott Brown, not Martha Coakley.
Looking back at this incredible campaign, it is clear that a lot of things had to fall into place for Scott Brown to win. The fact that the pieces came together for Brown was no mere accident.
Brown seized the moment, and thereby changed the course of history.