As Scott Brown told the story the morning after the election, the first sign that something remarkable was about to happen in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts was ... well, it was a sign. One with his name on it. Someone had made it by hand and planted it in the snow in a front yard near Lunenburg. That was back in December, when the polls showed he was running 30 points behind Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the Senate seat once held by the late Edward Kennedy. Pretty soon after that, he told me, "they were popping up all over the place." People were even spelling out his name in snowbanks.
By mid-January, it was hard to find any place in the state that was not dotted with Brown signs even in the storefronts and driveways of Hyannis Port, the fabled seaside hometown of the Kennedy clan. As for the message that Brown's flinty 5-point win sent to Democrats across the country, that was summed up by the winner. "What happened in this election can happen all over America," he declared. "When there's trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured there's trouble everywhere and they know it."
Brown's victory some called it "the Scott heard round the world" on the eve of the first anniversary of Barack Obama's Inauguration was an ominous sign for Democrats for the midterm elections ahead and a potentially crippling blow to Obama's entire agenda. Brown ran explicitly on a promise to be the "41st Senator," who would give the Republicans the power to block what he called "the trillion-dollar health care bill that is being forced on the American people," one that will "raise taxes, hurt Medicare, destroy jobs and run our nation deeper into debt."
That such a message would resonate here was poignant, given that no one had fought harder and longer than Kennedy for universal health care, something that the terminally ill liberal lion had referred to before his death in August as "the cause of my life." And it was all the more ironic considering that Massachusetts has come closer than any other state to assuring coverage to all of its citizens, thanks to a 2006 law that was championed by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, who was celebrating onstage with Brown on election night.
Although the rest of the country sees Massachusetts as the bluest of blue states it had not elected a Republican Senator since Richard Nixon was President its political complexion is actually more subtle. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, but fully half the state's voters are registered "unenrolled" not affiliated with any party. And four of its last five governors have been Republicans, albeit ones of a more moderate stripe than that of the national party.
As I talked with voters braving the snow to get a glimpse of Brown in the days leading up to the election, the health care issue came up again and again. They were unsettled by the mounting costs of their state's program and even more so by the process they saw going on in Washington. Rather than being drafted with the common good in mind, they said, the health bill was turning into a series of backroom deals a Medicaid exemption for Senator Ben Nelson's Nebraska, tax breaks for unions, sweeteners for the hospital and drug industries. As a veteran of the Kennedy political operation put it, "They think there's a lot coming out of Washington and none of it is for them."
Then there were Brown's strengths as a fresh, energetic and appealing candidate who stood out in contrast to his Democratic opponent. State attorney general Martha Coakley seemed to take the race so much for granted that she barely bothered to campaign until it was too late. Asked by the Boston Globe about how few campaign appearances she was putting in, she made a dismissive reference to a Brown campaign video: "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?''
Brown, 50, did that and much, much more, running up the odometer on his black GMC pickup to 200,000 miles (about 320,000 km) as he crisscrossed the state. And while Coakley was taking time off, he was on the air early with upbeat ads one of which even compared him to John F. Kennedy. On the stump, he promised to change the way things get done in Washington sounding a note similar to one that helped get Obama elected 14 months earlier.
Still, he had a long way to go. One of only five Republicans in the 40-seat state senate, Brown wasn't even the best-known person in his family. His wife Gail Huff is a popular television reporter. His daughter Ayla was a semifinalist on American Idol and a four-year starter on the Boston College women's basketball team. The couple's other daughter, Arianna, is a premed freshman at Syracuse University. As picture-perfect as the Brown family looks, the Senator-elect's upbringing was anything but. His parents each married four times, and his mother was briefly on welfare. Brown was shuttled among relatives while he was growing up in the northern suburbs of Boston. As a youth, he was arrested for shoplifting. He credits the judge, Samuel Zoll, for setting him straight, in part by making him write a 1,500-word essay on what his life would be like in jail. Brown told the Boston Globe: "The other day I was at Staples, and something was in my cart that I didn't pay for. I had to bring it back because ... I thought of Judge Zoll.''
Brown may have benefited from being underestimated. As a 22-year-old law student, Brown posed nude for a Cosmopolitan magazine "America's Sexiest Man" photo spread that was resurrected and became an Internet sensation during the campaign. But he is also a 30-year veteran of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and his service figured prominently in his campaign. He won his first election as a local tax assessor in 1992 and was elected to the state senate in 2004. His politics tend to be standard conservative on issues like taxes and guns, but he supports Roe v. Wade and in 2007 earned a 100% rating from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Brown's surge caught national Democrats napping. But their GOP rivals moved fast in December when they noticed an internal poll that showed Brown closing the gap to only 13 points against Coakley. What really grabbed their attention, however, was something deeper in the data: among those most likely to vote, Brown was only 4 points down. In early January, the National Republican Senatorial Committee quietly dispatched staffers to Massachusetts and shifted $500,000 to the state party a huge plug of cash that wouldn't show up on its campaign filings until after the election was over. "It was a long shot," says a strategist, "but there was a very real opportunity for a forward pass." That pass connected, and Scott Brown has given his party a brand-new playbook.