Tuesday’s Republican victory in a special Senate election in Massachusetts has sent political shockwaves through Washington. The unexpected victory by Republican Scott Brown for the seat long held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy has inspired Republicans around the country, and now throws into question the fate of President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda as he begins his second year in office.
A few weeks ago, few people outside of Massachusetts had ever heard of Scott Brown. But in the wake of his once unthinkable Senate victory over heavily-favored Democrat Martha Coakley, Brown has emerged as a symbol of hope for Republicans as they look toward congressional midterm elections in November.
Brown campaigned hard against the health care plan put forward by President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders.
In the wake of his victory, Brown warned Democrats about spreading grass roots anger against the president’s domestic agenda. “They will be challenged again and again across this great land. And when there is trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured, there is trouble everywhere. And they know it!,” he said.
Brown’s victory reduces the number of Democratic seats in the Senate to 59, one shy of the 60 they need to prevent Republicans from using parliamentary tactics to kill or indefinitely delay bills, including the one pending on health care reform.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs says President Obama remains committed to health care reform. “Health care continues to be a priority of the president. It was yesterday, it was a year ago and it continues today,” he said.
But Gibbs acknowledges that internal discussions are underway about how to proceed in the wake of the Massachusetts result. He says Mr. Obama is aware of the anger that drove Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. “We will continue to have him focus on the economy and jobs. I think the American people expect that of their president and their Congress. And that is certainly what they will get,” he said.
But there is little doubt throughout Washington that Republicans are energized by Brown’s surprise victory.
Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe reached back into history to recall the anti-tax origins of the American Revolution, which started in Massachusetts. “The people of Massachusetts have fired a second shot heard around the world. Yesterday, they fired back against big, intrusive government — not with bullets, but with ballots,” he said.
Many Democrats prefer to blame the bad economy for Brown’s victory and for President Obama’s sagging public opinion ratings.
Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio said Wednesday that voters still want the president and his Democratic allies in Congress to deliver on their 2008 campaign promises. “It is clear from the results last evening that the voters are angry. They haven’t seen the change in direction that they thought they voted for a year ago November,” he said.
Republicans are especially excited because the growing grass roots anger against big government and the president’s health care plan took hold even in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts.
But local experts say poor economic conditions were the primary reason for Brown’s victory. “Even though the economy has improved under President Obama, it has not improved enough and there is still high unemployment in this country, very high underemployment in this country. There is a lot of frustration out there,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
The health care debate has dragged on longer than Democrats have expected, and surveys show that more Americans oppose the president’s plan than support it.
Experts say one of the lessons of the Massachusetts defeat for Democrats is that the president needs to refocus on the economy and jobs as soon as possible.
David Wasserman is with the Cook Political Report in Washington and was a guest on VOA’s “Encounter” program. “I don’t think President Obama and the Democrats were expecting to have to spend so much time on health care because it is dragging on. And in the eyes of a lot of Americans, this is not really dealing with the economy. This isn’t bringing back jobs. And at a time when unemployment in the country is over 10 percent, that is a real problem for the majority party,” he said.
Analysts also say that Mr. Obama should be concerned about the flight of independent voters from supporting Democratic candidates.
The president did well with independents in his election victory over Republican John McCain. But in the last three major elections — Massachusetts this week, and governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia last year — independents flocked to Republican candidates.
Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says that trend will clearly hurt Democrats in the November elections. “Most significantly, [we saw] independent voters moving to vote Republican by two-to-one margins. That is significant and I think probably the most telling harbinger for the 2010 midterm elections,” he said.
Most analysts say Republicans will gain 20 to 30 seats in the House of Representatives in November, which would come close to challenging Democrats for control of the chamber. Democrats are bracing for the likelihood of losing some Senate seats as well. Historically, a sitting president’s party typically loses congressional seats in the first midterm elections.