Five myths about the Massachusetts Senate race

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sen.-elect Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday has quickly turned into a sort of political Rorschach test: What it means depends largely on what you think it means. The Republican's upset win was either an upheaval of epic proportions or the result of unique circumstances that don't signify much. Here's a look at five myths that have emerged about the race.

1. Scott Brown didn't win the race, Martha Coakley lost it.

It's undeniable that when the national spotlight shined on Coakley in the final days of the race, she didn't perform well. From suggesting that there is no al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan to seeming unfamiliar with Boston Red Sox great Curt Schilling, Coakley was an awkward and uninspiring presence on the campaign trail. But to simply lay the loss at her feet misses the point. Brown and his team knew from the start that the best -- and possibly only -- way to win the race was to sneak up on Coakley. Throughout December, while she was measuring the drapes for her new Senate office, that's exactly what they did.

Despite a financial disadvantage, Brown went on television first with a now-famous -- and sure to be much-copied -- ad that pictured him driving around the state in a pickup truck, reinforcing his average Joe-ness. In a debate eight days before the election, Brown was confident and reasonable, clearly outperforming Coakley. And, most important, in the race's final days -- with a crush of national press attention and millions of dollars' worth of ads being run against him -- Brown stayed true to his central message ("I'm the independent voice in the race"). He offered Coakley and national Democrats no openings on which to attack.

2. Brown's victory means health-care legislation is dead.

Their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is now a thing of the past, and Democrats have been left to scramble to salvage President Obama's main legislative priority. Options remain, though, even if none of them are very appealing, particularly since Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pronouncement that the votes are simply not there to pass the Senate bill through the House without any changes. The simple political reality is this: The White House believes that any bill at this point is better than no bill at all. Remember that this president was elected to get Washington working again; an utter collapse of health-care reform would badly undermine that image.

3. Democrats are headed toward oblivion in the midterm elections.

In the immediate aftermath of Brown's win, Republicans were jubilant and even a bit cocky. "No Democrat is safe," one House Republican strategist told me Tuesday night. (Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment later in the week, telling reporters that "every state is now in play.") The Democrats are probably headed for losses in the House and the Senate this fall, it's true. But it's not yet clear whether those losses will be consistent with the historical norm in a president's first midterm, which is 15 to 20 House seats and two to five Senate seats, or will amount to something larger that could endanger the Democrats' majorities in Congress.

The Senate race in Massachusetts is an imperfect barometer for gauging where the midterms are headed, because it was a special election staged in the middle of the president's attempt to finally pass his health-care bill through Congress. There are clearly ill omens for Democrats in the results, most notably the flight of independents from their party. But ups and downs in politics seem to occur on an accelerated timeline these days. Extrapolating from Massachusetts in January to nationwide elections in November is a dangerous game.

4. The Obama brand is dead.

Yes, the president made a last-minute campaign stop in Boston for Coakley. And no, it didn't change the direction of the race. But declaring that the political phenomenon known as Barack Obama has hit a brick wall isn't the right conclusion. Obama remains a potent political force among the Democratic base; internal polling conducted for both parties after his visit to Massachusetts last Sunday showed that his presence had helped energize the most loyal Democrats about a race that had generated little enthusiasm until then. Those same polls showed, however, that Obama's appearance did little to move the dial among independent voters, a critical voting bloc that anecdotal evidence -- all we have without exit polling -- suggested the Democrats lost badly. Obama was the pied piper to independents in the 2008 election, winning them by 51 percent to 45 percent over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That magic touch has worn off. At least for now.

5. Women can't win in Massachusetts.

A gender double standard was clearly at play in the race. Just imagine if a mostly nude picture of Coakley had surfaced and made the rounds the way Brown's Cosmopolitan spread has. But Coakley didn't lose because she's a woman in a state that doesn't have a great track record of electing women. Coakley, in fact, had everything those who have studied successful female candidates could want: a deep résumé, past campaign experience at the statewide level and a toughness born out of her time as state attorney general. What she lacked was not a Y chromosome but rather a shot of charisma. She lost because she was an insider in an outsider environment. Because she made a series of verbal flubs that made her look out of touch. Because the lines of communication between Coakley's campaign and Democrats were, at best, shaky. Was Coakley's gender an asset for her, as it was in her convincing primary victory? No. But a man running the same poor campaign in an even poorer national environment almost certainly comes up short, too. This loss was about a lot of things, but not about Coakley's gender.

Chris Cillizza is a national politics reporter for The Washington Post and the author of "The Fix," a politics blog.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company