It's been a tumultuous five months in American politics since Ted
Kennedy died and the long process to fill his Senate seat began. Paul Kirk was
appointed to fill it in the interim, and now Democrat Martha Coakley and
Republican Scott Brown are vying for a six-year
term. The ups and downs of the long process reveals a lot not only about local dynamics, but also about the rapidly changing national forces shaping the race.
Here, we survey how political commentary has changed along the way. The shifting assumptions of the political class reflect not just the nitty-gritty of filling Kennedy's seat, but also the shifting fates of Democrats, Republicans, and the American political system. We start with early speculation just before Kennedy's August 25, 2009, death through to the election today.
- August 20: Will There Be An Interim? With Kennedy's death looming, many wondered if Kennedy's seat would be filled at all before the special election. Noting that Massachusetts election law forbade appointing Senators, many conservatives decried Kennedy-led efforts to allow an appointment as a "pile of hypocrisy" and the end of rule of law.
- August 26: Floating Successors Suggested Democratic replacements for Kennedy focused on another Kennedy, particularly his wife or his nephew. Also suggested were a bevy of Massachusetts Democrats, including Congressmen and, yes, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
- August 27: Will Mitt Romney Run? It was taken by many as a foregone conclusion, with quite a few pundits analyzing his chances in a race and explaining why it would boost his chances in a 2012 presidential run. Needless to say, all were proven wrong.
- September 21: The Case for Atul Gawande With the interim Senator still not announced, liberal health care wonks mounted a campaign to enlist surgeon, New Yorker writer and health care expert Atul Gawande. They argued Gawande's health care expertise would honor Ted Kennedy's passion for health care reform, which at that point looked much less certain to pass. It didn't happen.
- September 22: The Case for Michael Dukakis Another possible interim appointee, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was championed by liberal. He was especially popular among those who remember his bold but ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign, and who perhaps wanted to improve his mixed legacy.
- September 24: Paul Kirk's Selection Draws Sighs No one was very excited about the appointment of long-time Kennedy ally Paul Kirk as interim Senator. He was met either with shrugs of indifference or with concerns about being too controversial or risky. Despite the warnings, Kirk's four-month tenure has, so far, been quiet and controversy-free.
- December 8: Which Milquetoast Dem Will Waltz To Victory? National political coverage of the Democratic and Republican primaries was basically nil. In Massachusetts, debate focused on which Democrat should be nominated for what was seen as certain victory in the general election. The Democratic candidates generated general antipathy, with Martha Coakley the least disliked.
- January 5: Could a Republican Actually Win? The national media suddenly turned its attention to Massachusetts as there appeared to be a remote, distant possibility for Republican Scott Brown to win. But few took the possibility seriously, as Brown still lagged by double-digits. The consensus was that Brown's best shot was to distance himself from conservatism and the GOP as much as possible, positioning himself instead as a somewhat-less-liberal alternative to Coakley. However, since January 5, Brown has closed the gap despite taking the exact opposite strategy, working hard to channel conservative anger against Democrats.
- January 12: How Is This Race Even Close? Commentators were agog that the race had closed to single-digits in the polls. Most liberal and even conservative pundits, however, remained confident of a Coakley win. Theories ranged from Coakley's weakness to national anti-Democrat sentiment to polling aberrations, with no real consensus.
- January 15: Democrats Could Lose This Liberals warned that the race was Coakley's to lose if she did not match Brown's tenacious campaigning and fund-raising. A separate, growing strain of opinion argued that the race was bigger than Brown or Coakley, representing a real electoral backlash against Democrats, especially among independents.
- January 17: Tea Partiers Getting Smarter Once derided as irrational fountains of anti-establishment rage, many credited the tea party movement with boosting Scott Brown. Though, as a New Englander, Brown is far less conservative than the core of the tea party movement, their nationwide grassroots support of his campaign helped boost his visibility and fundraising. His surge in the polls looked like the work of a wiser, more pragmatic tea party movement.
- January 18: Do-Or-Die For Dems Pundits indifferent to electoral politics in Massachusetts started to see the long-term, national implications for a Brown win. With the polls tied, Senator Brown looked increasingly likely. Could he, by becoming the 41st Republican Senator, kill health care reform? Could he kill financial regulation, cap-and-trade, immigration reform? Many declared that the national political stakes in the race were impossible to overstate.
- January 19: Passing Health Care Without Coakley With Coakley trailing in the polls for the first time, liberals moved past their initial panic and began to take her loss as a given. They strategised on how Obama could eke health care reform through Congress if Scott Brown won. Notably, all of the strategies would work only with health care reform and not with future pieces of legislation.
- January 19: Libs Turn Against Coakley Forgoing reflection on the greater political trends possibly at work behind Coakley's slide from inevitable to doomed, liberals laid into the candidate and her campaign. Critics cited everything from her many gaffes to her infrequent appearances to explain the change in fate. If Coakley loses and this narrative holds, she will be remembered as the Massachusetts Attorney General who handed Republicans the 41st vote required to filibuster Democrats.