By Ben Pershing
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 3:05 PM
In the third week of December, Senate Democratic leaders were huddled in meetings, laboring to secure the 60 votes they needed to pass a health-care reform bill. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was busily blasting out news releases trashing Republican candidates in Nevada, New Hampshire and Colorado.
But at the National Republican Senatorial Committee's headquarters on Capitol Hill, Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.) was focused on another state: Massachusetts.
A fresh poll commissioned by the committee showed that state Sen. Scott Brown (R) had a fighting chance against state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D).
The NRSC's realization in mid-December that the Massachusetts race could be competitive served to focus the party's leaders and resources on the contest before Democrats knew what hit them. Brown stormed from being a decided underdog to an unlikely front-runner to the senator-elect in just over a month's time.
"Obviously part of our strategy was not to telegraph our recognition that this race could be won, and the surging of Brown's numbers," Cornyn said Wednesday. "I don't know whether [Democrats] could have salvaged the race if they had recognized that earlier or not. Clearly once they did, they spent millions of dollars on negative ads that I don't think helped Ms. Coakley all that much."
That December poll, the existence of which was first reported by Politico, showed Brown trailing Coakley by 13 points but running neck and neck among the voters most likely to turn out for the special election. Cornyn shared the news with his fellow GOP leaders but asked them to keep the information under wraps.
The NRSC quietly started sending staff into Massachusetts in the first week of the year and sent $500,000 on Jan. 7. The potential closeness of the contest didn't become national news until days after those steps.
Now, both party committees are looking back at what went right and wrong in Massachusetts, and looking to divine what the stunning result means for other races in November.
"I think we're going to see a lot of candidates step forward and decide to run, because they see opportunities, and people are going to see how successful Scott Brown was . . . and try to emulate his campaign," Cornyn said Wednesday.
The current Senate playing field includes competitive races for Democrat-held seats in a host of swing states, from Nevada and Colorado to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Open seats have also put blue-leaning states like Delaware and Illinois in play. But in the wake of Brown's win in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, strategists in both parties are now wondering whether any Democrat is truly safe, and whether similar contests could materialize in states like California and Wisconsin.
Challenging Democrats in so many states will take cash. Through the end of November, the NRSC had raised $37 million and had $7.3 million in the bank. (The DSCC had raised $40 million and had $11.9 million on hand.) Cornyn said he expects Brown's win to motivate donors to boost the committee's coffers.
"This certainly will help," Cornyn said.
A former Texas attorney general and close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Cornyn got the NRSC chairmanship in early 2009 after his chief competitor for the post, Norm Coleman (Minn.), withdrew from the running during a lengthy recount of his own reelection race. (Coleman lost to Al Franken.)
Though he is a party-line conservative, Cornyn has emphasized the need to recruit candidates who fit their states, and scored a coup by helping to persuade popular moderate Rep. Michael N. Castle to run for Senate in Delaware. Similarly, Brown supports abortion rights, though with some restrictions, a stance that would put him at odds with many Senate Republicans but fits Massachusetts well.
But that doesn't mean Cornyn counsels GOP candidates to run away from their party. In a memo issued to the news media Wednesday morning, Cornyn wrote: "Scott Brown ran on a platform built from traditional Republican Party planks: lower taxes, smaller government, strong national security, and individual responsibility. When our candidates communicate our party's core messages in 2010, Republicans can win elections in even the most liberal of states."