Scott Brown's 'American Idol' road to victory

Sen.-elect Scott Brown, left, meets with Sen. John McCain on Thursday.
Sen.-elect Scott Brown, left, meets with Sen. John McCain on Thursday. (Lauren Victoria Burke/associated Press)
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By Kevin Huffman
Friday, January 22, 2010

As Scott Brown stormed to victory in the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday night, I huddled with my daughters watching Fox. No, not the gloating election coverage on Fox News -- I wouldn't do that to impressionable young minds. We watched the flagship's "American Idol" auditions.

This seemed fitting since, four years ago, Ayla Brown, the senator-elect's daughter, captivated my kids during a short-lived "American Idol" run (my eldest daughter cried as hard as Ayla did when she got booted from the show). Ayla was an attractive though somewhat bland singer who belted out tunes by Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera. She had a chipper attitude and a limited vocal range. In short, good for TV.

If only she had been competing against Martha Coakley. Ayla's dad followed the same attractive, bland but hardworking formula and rocked it all the way to the Capitol.

One thing I can tell you about American elections (both political and reality-TV): Bland, attractive and hardworking is a decent strategy. If you can avoid offending, condescending and generally being annoying, if you can come off as nice and normal and sing a tune people recognize, you've got a shot -- regardless of your musical or party affiliation.

Amazingly, my fellow Democrats manage to mess up this basic formula again and again, particularly in the Bay State. Michael Dukakis in the tank, John Kerry windsurfing, Martha Coakley on Curt Schilling -- they all conveyed a fundamental disconnect from the lives of average citizens. Not that Coakley gave herself a lot of opportunities to connect: The Boston Globe reported that she clocked 19 public events during the stretch from the primaries into last weekend, while Brown had 59.

In elections, images are symbolic, and symbolism matters when it reflects a deeper truth. In Massachusetts the truth was that the Democratic candidate spent too much time with the power brokers and not enough time with the people. When asked about her focus on wooing political leaders and union organizers, Coakley shot back, "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" Not surprisingly, the message stuck. When she popped down to Washington to schmooze with big donors while Brown raised $1.3 million on the Internet, it stuck.

"Everybody can buy a truck," President Obama scoffed at a rally on Sunday, piling on to the Democratic criticism of the truck Brown drove between campaign events.

The president didn't know how right, and wrong, he was. Anyone can buy a truck. Anyone can put 200,000 miles on it driving to rallies. Anyone can stand in the cold and shake hands and ask for $20 donations and votes. Massachusetts voters used the ballot box to note that the state is not an oligarchy, despite more than 50 years of Massachusetts senator Kennedys, and that there is no pre-ordained right to 60 votes in the Senate.

Just a year removed from a presidential election made historic in part by its mobilization of grass-roots efforts, Democrats have managed to slip back into the bad habit of talking up to the party bosses and down to the average folks. Voters sensed what "Idol" viewers would know: They are trying too hard impress the judges and not hard enough to connect with the audience.

Democratic strategists ought to familiarize themselves with "American Idol" history: The year Ayla Brown made her brief appearance, Chris Daughtry, the chain-wearing rock star, was the judges' favorite. But Taylor Hicks, the Elvis-covering everyman, won the people's votes and the title. Last season it came down to Adam Lambert, the critically acclaimed glam rocker, and Kris Allen, the folksy boy next door with a pleasant voice and a nice smile. Kris Allen won. See a pattern?

Scott Brown is a Taylor Hicks, a Kris Allen. He's an appealing guy who hung in there, worked hard and sang some familiar tunes. Voters rewarded him for it.

The Democrats have less than a year to figure out what tune to sing and how to reach their audience. Hopefully by November they'll perform with a little more gusto.

The writer won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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