Campaign season came early for residents of Massachusetts this year. The January special election to fill the seat of the deceased Edward M. Kennedy pitted the Massachusetts Attorney General, Democrat Martha Coakley, against Republican state senator Scott Brown. Despite Massachusetts’ history of Democratic leadership (all ten of its congressional representatives are Democrats), the contest ended with a solid Brown victory. While Coakley faced an unexpected upsurge of discontent with the Obama administration, a poorly run campaign only compounded her problems. Furthermore, the Democratic Party’s failure to step in and help the flagging Coakley campaign suggests that Democrats will have to change their tactics if they want to be competitive in the midterm elections.
OBAMA AND THE DNC
Many view Brown’s victory as a referendum on Obama’s first year in office and a reflection of disappointment with Democrats in Washington. As William Galston of the Brookings Institute told the HPR, “There is an enormous amount of discontent in the country with the condition of the economy. That has resulted in a climate that is very difficult for Democrats.” And Alan Khazei, a Coakley competitor in the Democratic primary, told the HPR, “There was frustration with Washington, and Washington is not being responsive to people’s everyday needs.” But Republicans are more eager to highlight the fact that Brown positioned himself as the man to stop Obama’s health care plan in the Senate.
The Democratic leadership has also been criticized for not coming to Coakley’s aid when polls in early January showed her numbers sliding. For a party that just ran one of the most disciplined presidential campaigns in history, this was a surprising misstep. Nonetheless, Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, emphasized that Massachusetts wasn’t “really the president’s territory. In the past, presidents have not been that helpful in state races.” Therefore it is hard to say whether anything could have been done to save Coakley, but more of a fight no doubt could have been made, if only for purposes of morale.
Coakley was heavily criticized for appearing to take victory for granted after the primary, while Brown’s pickup truck became a symbol of his populist appeal. Brown’s ability to connect with voters was crucial in his contest against a candidate widely ridiculed for her emotional distance. Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute suggested that Coakley lost votes by taking a “six-day vacation” in December, while Harvard Kennedy School professor David King bluntly told the HPR, “The Coakley campaign was a colossal disaster. … Coakley’s arrogance was her downfall. Her campaign was defined mostly by her absence from it.”
Harvard students saw the results of Coakley’s poor campaign firsthand. The Harvard Students for Khazei group was an active presence during the Democratic primary, but Coakley’s campaign never reached out to the group to mobilize campus support during the general election. Jack Cashion, a campaign coordinator for the Khazei campaign at Harvard, said, “I believe that Khazei or someone else would have continued to campaign pretty hard after the primary in a way that would have engaged individuals much more.” Jason Berkenfeld, president of the Harvard College Democrats, told the HPR that “working for the Coakley campaign was really a challenge. She wasn’t the most inspiring candidate, and we struggled to get our membership fired up. She never really reached out to college students properly.” Coakley’s failure to excite —throughout the state and on the Harvard campus in particular — foreshadowed the results on election day.
LOOKING AHEAD TO NOVEMBER
While many have made predictions about what this election means for the Democrats’ midterm prospects, Elaine Kamarck, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says it’s too soon to tell. “Obama’s team is smart and they definitely got the message,” she told the HPR. “They are already adjusting, and his State of the Union speech showed that.” Khazei is similarly optimistic: “For Democrats, this is a wake-up call. … If Democrats respond to this, they’ll be fine in November.” And Berkenfeld emphasized that the Harvard Dems are rethinking their role in the midterm elections following Coakley’s defeat. Perhaps the only clear lesson of the Coakley defeat is that, if the Democrats are to be successful in the midterms, they must instill in their supporters that same sense of urgency that they felt in the 2008 presidential election.
Peter Bozzo ’12 is a Staff Writer. John Prince ’13 is a Contributing Writer.