Energy and Stealth of G.O.P. Groups Undid a Sure Bet

BOSTON — The e-mail message from a Massachusetts supporter to one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement arrived in early December. The state was holding a special election to fill the seat held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, it said, and conditions were ripe for a conservative ambush: an Election Day in the dead of winter with the turnout certain to be low.


“To be honest, we kind of looked at it and said, this is a long shot,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of state campaigns for FreedomWorks, which has become an umbrella for the Tea Party groups. But the group was impressed by the determination of organizers inside this most Democratic state, and was intrigued by the notion that this could be a way to effectively derail the health care bill in the Senate.

And so FreedomWorks sent out a query to dozens of its best organizers across the country. Within days, the clamoring response made clear that what seemed like the longest of shots suddenly seemed very attainable; within weeks, the Tea Party movement had established a beachhead in Mr. Kennedy’s home state.

While conservatives quietly mobilized behind a state senator, Scott Brown, to fill Mr. Kennedy’s seat, Democrats barely paid attention to a contest that by every indication and history should have been nothing to worry about.Martha Coakley, the attorney general and Democratic Party candidate, barely campaigned in the weeks after winning her primary.

The vastly different responses of the two parties contributed to a confluence of seemingly unrelated events that fundamentally altered the course of what should have been a routine political event.

In Washington, Senate Democrats had to engage in odorous horse-trading to pass a staggeringly complex health care bill in the face of a Republican filibuster, displaying Congress at its partisan and dysfunctional worst.

Across the country, the bailouts of Wall Street and the banks, the big year-end bonuses for powerful executives, and the rapidly ballooning federal deficit were feeding populist anger and resentment of the Obama administration while providing the Tea Party movement fresh energy and issues around which to organize.

Here in Massachusetts, Mr. Brown began introducing himself with a modest buy of television ads that would prove politically prescient: The outsider battling the Democratic party establishment, in this case, Ms. Coakley.

It was less of a long shot than it seemed: The National Republican Senatorial Committee had, nine days before Christmas, quietly conducted a poll designed to identify the voters most likely to cast ballots in an election like this and found Mr. Brown just three points behind.

But Ms. Coakley did almost nothing early on, lulled by the knowledge that Democrats had held the Senate seat for 57 years, emboldened by her 19-point win in a four-way primary and the high approval ratings that attorneys general typically enjoyed. She disappeared from the trail for a few days of rest. Her campaign, strapped for cash, was not conducting polls in that critical period and had yet to air a single commercial. Mr. Brown’s ad buy was viewed in the Coakley camp as little more than a mosquito bite.

By the time Ms. Coakley’s campaign and Democratic officials noticed that things were not right in Massachusetts — with a poll on Jan. 9 that showed Mr. Brown holding a one-point lead — the fire, as one White House official put it, was out of control. The Tea Party reinforcements had arrived, and a conservative group from Iowa started running commercials here portraying Ms. Coakley as a big spender who would raise taxes, a powerful issue with independent voters upset with the growing debt that had been inherited by the Obama administration.

“It was a classic case of everybody getting caught napping,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, said in an interview. “This guy knew exactly what he was doing. He’s an appealing candidate. Pleasant guy. He’s smart. He tapped into an anti-politician sentiment.”

The two-week period that upended the politics of Massachusetts and the nation may well be remembered as the moment that undid the signature initiative of the Obama presidency, his health care bill. It is a story, based on interviews with more than three dozen people involved in the race, of missed opportunities and tensions among Democratic power centers here in Washington.

But it also heralds the coming of age of the Tea Party movement, which won its first major electoral success with a new pragmatism, and the potential of different elements of a divided Republican Party to rally around one goal.

Mr. Brown’s views may not have been perfectly aligned with all of the conservative activists, but he pledged to vote against the health care bill, opposed a cap-and-tradeprogram to reduce carbon emissions and opposed proposals to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. In the final week of the race, he raised $1 million a day on the Internet, a sign of the breadth of support that exists for few other candidates.

“For us, this is not so much about Scott Brown as it is about the idea that if we really collaborate as a mass movement, we can take any seat in the country,” said Eric Odom, executive director of the American Liberty Alliance, who helped organize last spring’s Tax Day Tea Party from his home in Chicago.

For all the political power of the Democratic Party — its control of the White House and both houses of Congress — this contest highlighted serious flaws in its political operation heading into the tough midterm elections, from the political affairs office of the White House to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It demonstrated the extent to which the White House was distracted by the exceedingly difficult task of passing a health care bill before the State of the Union address, along with dealing with a failed attempt to thwart a terrorist plot on Christmas Day.

Kitty Bennett contributed reporting from Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 20, 2010 
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the National Rifle Association rating of Scott Brown, the winner of the special Senate election in Massachusetts. He had an A rating from the group, not an F rating.


Original article found here.