When I talked with Rep. Richard Neal, the veteran Democratic congressman from Springfield, Mass., on the afternoon of the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, he told me, "It's an alarm clock moment for us." That is no exaggeration. Scott Brown, the little-known Republican who pulled out a victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley, is the first Republican to win a Massachusetts Senate race since 1972 and will be the only Republican in what has been an all-Democratic congressional delegation from the Bay State.
Ron Kaufman, the longtime Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, said, "It was a perfect storm" that made it possible.
"We had a really good candidate," Kaufman said. "A military veteran, a family guy, a fiscal conservative, moderate on social issues, a pro-choice Catholic. But it was bigger than that. The Democrats didn't understand that people here are very upset with the way things are going in Washington, just as they are elsewhere. They see big sums being spent, big deficits piling up, and they want to send a message."
The disillusionment with Democratic-controlled Washington is echoed and amplified by a similar attitude toward the state government on Beacon Hill, where all key positions are held by Democrats.
Kaufman noted that three speakers of the lower house have been forced out of office, and that Gov. Deval Patrick, whose election in 2006 filled the one hole in the Democratic monopoly at the time, has seen his approval rates sink toward 30 percent.
Health care reform — the Democrats' chosen issue of 2009 and Kennedy's lifetime cause — worked for the Republicans in this race. As Kaufman pointed out, Massachusetts enacted its own bipartisan health reform four years ago under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, with Kennedy cheering, and that reform insured almost everyone in the state without raising taxes and without creating a government insurance company.
This allowed Brown to argue that he would vote against the legislation pending in Washington, which by comparison looks more expensive and more bureaucratic and more partisan than the Massachusetts model.
Members of the Democratic congressional delegation and other Democratic politicians with whom I talked echoed many of the points Kaufman made. They also were vocally critical of Coakley's campaign, arguing that it was a serious miscalculation for her to break off campaigning and advertising after her easy victory in the primary.
They also faulted her performance in the television debates, and contrasted it with the way Kennedy had rescued what looked for many weeks to be a faltering campaign against Romney in 1994, with a stunning job in their Faneuil Hall debate.
In addition to all this, I would add that Massachusetts has been and remains tough territory for female candidates. A woman has yet to be elected by Bay State voters as governor or senator, and women have been notably scarce in the House delegation as well.
For all these factors specific to Massachusetts, the implications of this election are much larger. With Brown, Republicans have regained the 41st vote that allows them to filibuster bills in the Senate. Neal, an influential senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told me that Democrats may have to turn to Republicans for help and the result may be "a slimmed-down" health care bill.
In November, Democrats lost the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, two states President Barack Obama carried in 2008, and now they have lost a race in Massachusetts, where he won in a landslide.
There is no evidence Obama provided a boost for local candidates by campaigning in all three of those states. I was told that one internal Democratic poll in Massachusetts showed Coakley slid six points during the final weekend, when Obama and Bill Clinton were in Massachusetts urging voters to support her.
Nationally, as in Massachusetts, polls show independents defecting rapidly from support of Obama's congressional agenda, and Democrats on Capitol Hill are deeply worried about the persistence of high unemployment.
Obama may recover, as Ronald Reagan did from a similar second-year slump, but it will take a significant change of direction to turn things around.
THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP