Wake up and smell Massachusetts


There a certain constants in this world that keep us sane.

The rising sun; David Dickinson’s complexion; the Daily Mail’s editorial ‘direction’; and the deep blueness of the politics of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. However on Tuesday 19th January 2010, the Bay Staters delivered a political surprise of Goliath proportion. For the first time since 1946, Massachusetts, arguably the most liberal state in the Union, elected Scott Brown (R), instead of Martha Coakley (D), as its Senator. It was a landmark victory for the Republicans, no question, but more significantly it figures as the largest shot of caffeine for the current administration, and every other Congressman and Senator seeking re-election. It is time to take note – and here’s why. 


The Democratic Party hold the White House, the Congress and the Senate and though Obama’s personal popularity has fallen to its lowest level, as Nick Coxon explores in his most recent blog, this isn’t enough to explain the collapse in the Democrat vote entirely. Further, this senate seat is no ordinary one; it encapsulates the historical and emotional relationship between Massachusetts and liberalism. Held by Ted Kennedy for nearly half a century before his tragic death in August 2009, and before him by his brother and President, John F Kennedy, it is – or was – a throne of the left movement. In the 2008 presidential election campaign, the state gave the Obama-Biden ticket a 61.8% mandate, and in 2004 John Kerry received similar backing.


Significantly too, Massachusetts was the only state in the Union to vote for George McGovern, the Democratic opponent to Nixon, in the 1972 presidential election, much to the nation’s corporate regret following Nixon’s resignation two years later. Indeed after the Watergate affair, a number of the State’s automobiles were brandished with self-affirming bumper stickers reading: “Nixon 49, America 1” and “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”


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The Brown victory cannot be written off as a fluke. Despite snowfall, turnout was high throughout the state, and 52% is certainly no small majority. We must also acknowledge that the administration, like The Boston Globe, thought Coakley could, and would, win. President Obama and Bill Clinton put their faces next to Martha Coakley posters in visits to the state, a few days before the polls opened in an attempt to squeeze the vote in her favour. But rather than catapulting Coakley to the Senate, they cast doubt on their own political judgements and expectations.



Despite many commentators’ attempts to simplify the analysis of the Brown win, numerous factors were at play. First Brown was arguably charismatic, warm, attractive (had appeared nude in a Cosmo centre-fold) and relentless in his campaigning; Coakley was off putting to some, an establishment figure, distant and seemingly less energetic on the campaign trail (taking a break from activity following a series of damaging gaffes). Brown’s team seized upon a number his opponents missteps: Coakley claimed in her final television debate performance that there are no terrorists in Afghanistan; her team (criminally) misspelled Massachusetts on one of her attack advertisements; and, perhaps most damning of all in a State which is sensitively dedicated to its team, Coakley referred to a Red Sox basketball hero – Curt Schilling – as a “Yankees fan.” Nothing is insignificant in a race so tight. Soon Coakley gained an image of disconnection from her electors, providing Brown with the perfect moment to cement his handshake with the public. Phrases like “I’m Scott Brown, I’m from Wrentham, and I drive a truck” and “it’s the people’s seat” oozed through the airwaves as fodder for the undecideds and independents, disaffected by Obama and Coakley combined.  



The result was a game changer. The Senate will be further divided on Obama’s already kangarooing healthcare policy. Massachusetts is a state which is often used as the model for a reformed healthcare system, having only 5% uninsured and established a online insurance marketplace signalled as a blueprint for national application. Thus, their opinion on Obama’s national health strategy counts. Perhaps fractious at the ObRahma agenda which leaves behind a considerable margin of progressive voters, and one which seems far from being concluded, the most liberal state in America turned away from a Democrat who has the chance, and seems to be wasting it.


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What would those bumper stickers read now? Wake up and smell the Massachusetts?