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Tuesday’s Result Raises New Questions for Both Parties

An OnMessage Inc. poll conducted for the Republican National Committee just before the special election asked 500 likely voters whether they would be more or less likely to vote for Brown if they knew that he “would be the deciding vote against the health care reform plan currently being discussed in Congress.”

The results — 43 percent said they would be more likely, 33 percent said they would be less likely and 21 percent responded that it would make no difference — have to be more than a little unsettling to Democratic officeholders from conservative, Republican or swing districts. Some of them may well decide that the only way for them to survive politically later this year is to vote against their party’s leadership on key public policy initiatives.

But could a Brown victory give Democrats an opportunity to regain their footing and even redefine the 2010 midterms? Possibly.

Since Brown’s election kills a Democrat-only health care bill, it could also force Democrats to be more sensitive to the voters — not just base Democratic constituencies. In other words, the shock of a Republican win in Massachusetts might just bring national Democrats, including the president, back to reality.

Democratic prospects in November’s midterms rest directly on the economy, and Coakley’s loss may convince Democratic leaders that the party needs to spend more time on jobs and less on health care or climate change.

Finally, Democrats could ultimately benefit from the fallout of the special election if Republicans exaggerate their own popularity and start to assume the inevitability of a landslide in November.

Voters don’t like arrogance — or being taken for granted (as Tuesday’s results show) — and Republicans can’t afford to look too partisan, especially if Democrats reach out to the GOP in a serious and substantive way to tackle the nation’s very real problems.

I wrote just two days ago in this space that a Brown victory would be the biggest political upset of my adult life. Now that it has happened — and even though I changed my rating of the race Monday to Lean Takeover — I still have a hard time believing that Democrats have lost Kennedy’s seat.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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