WRENTHAM, Mass. – Katherine Monroe started making phone calls to “soft Dems”–the term that Scott Brown’s Republican campaign for Senate uses for registered Democrats who don’t always vote the party line–in mid-December. At the time, to her surprise, they were splitting 50-50 between Brown and Martha Coakley, the Democratic state attorney general. As Brown has gained momentum for his out-of-nowhere bid, her responses have been getting more and more one-sided for Brown. At times, they’ve gotten rapturous.
[GOP1] “I talked to a lady this morning,” said Monroe, “who said, ‘I think he’s the white Obama! I’m voting for him!’”
Monroe laughed and shook her head. “I said, ‘Thank you so much! I’m so glad you’re voting for him!’ But: ‘the white Obama?’ She said it three times! I didn’t know how to respond!”
Behind her, clambering on and off of a snowbank outside a Littleton campaign office, Brown was demonstrating what that kindly “soft Dem” had been talking about. He was besieged by supporters, almost all of them handing over a campaign sign for him to autograph or asking him to pause for a photo. Handmade signs intermingled with official Brown signs–the most popular was “The People’s Seat,” adopted as a Brown slogan the nanosecond that he framed the race that way in his final debate with Coakley. What was supposed to be a short stop in this northeast Massachusetts town, which voted 2,963 to 2,106 for Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin, went on for an hour.
“There’s a Patriots game on tomorrow,” said one supporter. “You’re it!”
“Thank you!” said Brown, shaking the supporter’s hand and spinning around to shake more of them. “I’m going to meet all of you!” said Brown. “I’m going to meet all of you before I leave!”
Another voter dove in and snapped a photo of his two young daughters posing with the candidate. “Wasn’t that fun?” he said, shepherding them away. “You’re gonna remember this some day, when he’s the president.”
The rise of Scott Brown, from a promising local politician to a candidate now seen as likely to take the seat that belonged to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the Republican Party, evokes the rise of many other insurgent candidates who hit the electoral sweet spot. The Republican seen last year as the most natural candidate for the seat, former Gov. Mitt Romney, is so unpopular in the state that he has not come in to campaign for Brown. Andrew Card, former President Bush’s first chief of staff, attracted much national attention but passed on the race, sparing Republicans a potentially well-funded campaign that would have uneasily worn the “change” mantle. But Brown himself has explicitly compared his campaign to Obama’s bid for the presidency.
“Who ever heard of a guy from Wrentham getting elected to the U.S. Senate?” Brown asked rhetorically at a Sunday afternoon “People’s Rally” in Worcester, cross-scheduled with the president’s appearance in Boston. “As the president may remember, upsets like that have been known to happen before.”
For Republicans in Massachusetts, the comparison between the Brown campaign and the election of the first African-American president isn’t so strange. In conversations with TWI, some echoed the terms that African-Americans used to describe Barack Obama after his victory in the Iowa caucuses. They never thought the day would come. They’re nervous about how the other team could still take it away. Some Brown supporters re-appropriated Obama’s slogans in their signs, writing “Scott Brown: Change We Can Afford” or even “Change We Can Believe In.” (There were some less kind signs, such as “Kick Martha in Her Left-Wing Mass” and “Beat Martha and the Dementedcrats.”)
“With Obama, it was all about feeling good,” said Laurie Myers, an anti-sexual predator campaigner and Republican who’d worked with Brown to pass legislation in the state Senate. “Now, it’s about survival.”
In the campaign’s final stretch, Brown has perfected a stump speech, usually delivered on the bed of his GM truck with state senate license plates, that is more about his insurgency than his issues. The issues get an airing out–Brown is for “John F. Kennedy-style” across-the-board tax cuts, he wants to “start over” on health care reform, and he wants to try terrorists in military tribunals. All of that takes up a fraction of the speech. At a campaign stop in North Andover–which gave the Obama-Biden ticket a 7,756 to 6,933 win in 2008–after wending his way through hundreds of supporters, Brown asked the crowd to contrast Coakley’s negative ads with his “upbeat, healthy, fun campaign.”
“If you want to be part of something that is so special right now in the history of this state,” said Brown, talking through a bullhorn, “if you want to make a difference and send a message to Washington, D.C., that we will not be part of business as usual–if you want to bring fairness and openness back to government, as the 41st senator, I will be able to bring fairness back to government.”
That message of fairness and standing up to the “political machine” has only occasionally been given a really ideological tint. Brown’s ads have linked Coakley to the wildly unpopular Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. But he’s made much of the September 2009 passage of legislation to let the state appoint a placeholder senator until the special election (Brown voted against it) and the possibility that Democrats might not immediately let him take the Senate seat if he wins on Tuesday. He’s attacked Democrats in Washington for holding health care discussions in “back rooms,” a charge that resonates because candidate Obama once pledged not to let that happen.
“Whatever happened to putting the health care talks on C-Span?” asked Bill Pattenaude, an unaffiliated voter who said he’d backed Kennedy in every election but 1994, after the senator voted for NAFTA. “It’s all happening in back rooms! It’s bullshit! It’s un-American!”
The extent of Brown’s promise to make Washington “fair,” as opposed to gridlocked, is hard to discern. When TWI asked him whether he would join filibusters of any of Barack Obama’s nominees currently stalled in the Senate, Brown said “No, no, no,” quickly moving on to shake more hands. But the speed of this campaign, and the slow reaction of Democrats who considered the seat safe until one week ago, has let Brown blur the details. While he has made massive headway against Coakley by accusing her of expecting “the Kennedy seat” to go to her without a fight, Brown has portrayed himself as a worthy heir to the larger Kennedy tradition. His first TV ad began with footage of John F. Kennedy explaining his 1962 tax cut, with the image suddenly shifting to Brown, finishing up Kennedy’s speech. Democrats point to Coakley’s failure to answer the ad–Brown would run two before she went on the air–as a crucial failure that let him define the race. But Republicans argue that Brown’s appeal to the sort of voters who used to back Kennedy is so natural that it couldn’t be helped.
“The turning point was when we ran the Kennedy ad,” said Ron Kaufman, a top Brown aide who said the crowd in North Andover was seven times larger than anything he’d seen on previous Massachusetts campaigns. “That got a great response.”
Several other Brown workers suggested that Joe Kennedy II, a former congressman and nephew of the senator who passed on this race, would have forced Brown into a different position and, if he’d worked harder than Coakley, made this a much less winnable race. (Some discussion has also focused on Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s widow.) But Kaufman gave Brown more credit. “They say Coakley ran a bad campaign,” said Kaufman, “but look, people are angry.”
“Coakley’s not a bad person,” said Greg Rucki, a Democrat from Franklin who talked to TWI at Brown’s final rally in his hometown of Wrentham. “I know people who’ve worked with her. Her politics are the same as mine–or they used to be. But I think people here are ready for a change.”