Massachusetts goes to the polls today in a special election to fill Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat. To the great surprise of, well, everyone, this election is actually competitive. Scott Brown, a little known Republican State Senator—that phrase has been used so frequently in recent weeks that it can longer possibly be true—has given Martha Coakley a run for her money. Though at one time polls had Coakley up 30 points over Brown, FiveThirtyEight’s model now gives Brown 3:1 odds to be the victor.
Win or lose, Coakley’s campaign—like Deed’s campaign in Virginia last year—offers important lessons for the Democrats going into the midterm election. Unfortunately, without exit polls, it will be difficult to construct an extensive post-mortem on the campaign. However, it seems that we can already draw two lessons: 1) don’t take elections for granted; 2) Congress must get something done.
As to the first point, lest we forget Coakley is running to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. In Massachusetts. And there is a very real possibility that she will lose. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this point. The lack of intensity, the lack of campaigning, and the lack of focus on this race has let Scott Brown become the favorite to win. Clearly, if Democrats are vulnerable in Massachusetts, they are vulnerable anywhere. Were I the RNC, I would throw money at every Congressional race in the country coming out of today.
As to the second point, Democrats, it’s clear that we are going to sink or swim together. The last year has been a terrible example of our party’s inability to control the message. The American people appear to be frustrated with Congress’s performance and its seeming inability to get anything done. Stop playing to the Republican’s message that Democrats can’t be trusted to govern: put a healthcare bill on President Obama’s desk; confirm the outstanding administration appointees; speak in consonance as a caucus about the issues confronting the nation. Without both tangible results and a coherent defense of Congressional action for the next 10 months, the midterm election will be a disaster. We may be nostalgic for 1994 at the end of this cycle.