Massachusetts Senate: Whoever Wins, It's an Upset

A few thoughts on Massachusetts: -While everyone acknowledges that a victory by Republican Scott Brown would be an incredible come-from-behind win, looking back at the ...
by | January 19, 2010

A few thoughts on Massachusetts:

-While everyone acknowledges that a victory by Republican Scott Brown would be an incredible come-from-behind win, looking back at the primary results helps quantify what he's overcome. Democrat Martha Coakley faced a tough four-way primary that included a congressman and two free-spenders. Brown faced one insignificant opponent.

So, Coakley won the Democratic nomination with 47% of the vote. Brown won the Republican nomination with 89% of the vote. Yet Coakley still received more than twice as many votes as Brown (311,548 to 146,057). Overall, 668,926 people voted in the Democratic primary and 165,007 voted in the Republican primary. Coakley started out with a massively larger base of supporters -- and the primary was just last month!

Now, you might make the case that Brown's primary numbers understated his support because Republicans didn't have much incentive to turnout. He faced only nominal opposition. Then again, three weeks ago you would have been forgiven for calling Brown himself nominal opposition to Coakley. What a difference a campaign makes.

-That said, calling this potentially the biggest upset in political history is a stretch. There are two ways that an election can be an upset. One is if a candidate wins in a place that, at the outset of the campaign, he or she appeared to have a distinct disadvantage (e.g. Bush winning Tennessee in 2000, Obama winning Indiana in 2008). The other way is if a candidate wins when, in the waning moments of the campaign, he or she appeared certain to lose (e.g. Hillary Clinton winning the New Hampshire primary).

A Brown victory would qualify as an upset on both these standards. Republicans don't usually win Senate races in Massachusetts. A few weeks ago he appeared certain to lose.

Still, on both standards, we've seen much bigger upsets in just the past few years. No one thought Greg Ballard could be elected mayor of Indiana in 2007. Even on Election Day this fall only the most optimistic Republicans could have expected Ed Mangano to be the next Nassau County Executive. Some of Democrats' wins for U.S. House in 2006 (Dave Loebsack, Nancy Boyda, Carol Shea-Porter) were complete surprises.

Likewise, while Massachusetts is quite unforgiving turf for a Republican running for federal office, political candidates have won tougher places. Chet Edwards, a Democratic congressman in a very Republican Texas district, faces more difficult terrain every time he runs. Republican Joseph Cao won in a New Orleans House district that gave President Obama more than 70% of the vote and, on Election Day, pretty much no one gave him a chance.

The stronger argument is that a Brown victory would be one of the most consequential upsets in American history. Has a president's signature initiative ever so clearly hinged on the results of a single election?

-You only have to look at the polls, though, to know that Brown is now a favorite to win. The average puts Brown ahead by 7 points. That creates a strange situation. If Brown wins, it's a huge upset. But, if Coakley wins, it's also a huge upset. (The way that's possible is that I'm equivocating on the meaning of "upset.")

A Coakley win would also be one of the most consequential upsets in American history. It would be the vote that saved health care reform.

-I'm surprised that Gov. Deval Patrick hasn't taken more blame for the anti-establishment mood in Massachusetts. And, I wonder whether a Coakley defeat would lead to calls for him to not run for reelection.

-Counties don't mean very much in Massachusetts. They're large, don't have general-purpose governments and don't all have distinct identities. That said, I will be watching for results from Middlesex County.

Middlesex County is Massachusetts' most populous county, with close to 1.5 million people. It's to the North and West of Boston, including cities such as Cambridge, Somerville, Lowell and Framingham, as well as Lexington and Concord.

The reason I'm interested in Middlesex County is that it tends to vote similarly to Massachusetts as a whole or just slightly more Democratic. In Mitt Romney's 2002 win, he took 49.41% of the vote in Middlesex County and 49.77% statewide. In 2008, Obama won 63.98% of the vote in Middlesex and 61.80% statewide.

Before she was elected attorney general, Coakley served as Middlesex County District Attorney. Some of her actions in that role were controversial, but she's counting on a reservoir of support from the people back home. If Brown wins Middlesex County, he's very likely to win the election.

-Finally, as a baseball fan, allow me to defend Coakley for calling Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. Schilling might as well be a Yankees fan because, at this point, the Yankees and the Red Sox are indistinguishable from one another other than their choice of footwear. They both have bloated payrolls, insufferable fans and championships built on PED-using players.

But, fans of the other 28 teams can take heart knowing that it's a lot more fun to be the underdog than the frontrunner. Just ask Martha Coakley and Scott Brown.


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