I wrote a column last week in which I dismissed the chances of Republican Scott Brown actually winning next Tuesday's Senate special election in Massachusetts. The race would be close, I figured -- 53-47 for Coakley, or something like that -- but the state's blue tint would be just enough to save the Democrats.
I'd now like to qualify that prediction. Coakley's internal poll last night, I've been told, showed her barely ahead, 46 to 44 percent. The momentum clearly favors Brown, and one very smart Massachusetts Democrat I know told me this morning that "this may be too far gone to recover."
So I was wrong: Brown may actually win.
This actually makes the point I was arguing last week -- that the election of a Democratic president and robust Democratic congressional majorities in 2008 essentially ruined a playbook that had worked brilliantly for the party in blue states for the last decade-and-a-half -- even more true.
You can read my entire argument here, but the basic point is that the rise of southern/religious-based conservatism in 1994 -- when Newt Gingrich and the GOP won control of Congress -- triggered an immediate and enduring cultural backlash among swing voters in places like Massachusetts. Before '94, they still saw the GOP (generally) as a big tent party with room for moderate/social libertarian-types. But '94 disabused them of that notion and they stopped even listening to Republican candidates.
I grew up in Massachusetts and remember this transformation well. In the early '90s, the party was ascendant in the state. Bill Weld was elected governor in 1990. Joe Malone won the treasurer's office that year. And Republicans won 16 of 40 seats in the state Senate -- enough to sustain a Weld veto. Then, in 1992, two Republicans won congressional seats. And in '94, there was actually a moment-- just 7 weeks before Election Day -- when Ted Kennedy trailed Mitt Romney in a Senate race.
But those strides were all erased by the Gingrich revolution of '94 -- and then George W. Bush's election in 2000. Since 1996, the Democrats have controlled every congressional seat in the state, with only one close call (a special election in 2007). The GOP has been reduced to just 5 seats in the state Senate and only 16 (out of 160!) in the House of Representatives.
(Yes, Republicans won the gubernatorial elections in 1998 and 2002, but there were extenuating circumstances. Paul Cellucci won in '98 by essentially being more of a Democrat than good-government reformer Scott Harshbarger, who was abandoned in the fall by countless Democratic mayors. And Romney won in 2002 by pretending to be a Weld-like cultural liberal and positioning himself as a responsible check on the Democrats' state government monopoly. What may have put him over the top, though, was the post-9/11 GOP tide of '02, which lifted several blue state Republicans (Carcieri in Rhode Island, Ehrlich in Maryland, Lingle in Hawaii) -- making '02 the only year in the Gringrich/Bush era when blue state voters were receptive to Republicans.)
Anyway, there are lots of reasons why Coakley might lose. She's been a terrible candidate -- absolutely. And her campaign waited much too long to run television ads and engage Brown. And Brown himself has been surprisingly adept --witness his quick retort to David Gergen the other night that "this isn't the Kennedys' seat...it belongs to the people of Massachusetts. She also, I am told, has been negligent at assembling a field operation.
But all of this matters around the edges. Had John McCain been elected last year, then all of the above could still be true -- and Coakley would be winning by 30 points. But with Republicans locked out power in Washington, swing voters in Massachusetts -- and every other blue state -- are, for the first time since 1994, ready to blame their problems on Democrats and use the GOP as a protest vehicle. And with 10 percent unemployment, voters have a lot of anger to vent.
Here's a pre-emptive plea, though: Let's not overreact to a Brown win -- or to a series of Brown-like wins by Republicans this fall. This will probably be a very good year for the GOP. But their "revival" will only last as long as the economy is in the tank.