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The Brown Effect

Conservatives, tea partiers, moderates, and independents find common ground.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By FRED BARNES
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Scott Brown’s victory spoils a popular myth. I’m not referring to the one about Teddy Kennedy as an indomitable force in Massachusetts, even from the grave. Yes, the Kennedy myth was rendered inoperative. But so was the fable about a death struggle pitting tea party populists and angry conservatives against moderates and the Republican hierarchy. That myth foresaw conservatives refusing to support candidates with even the slightest of moderate tendencies, dividing the party, and ruining its chances in the 2010 elections.

The Brown Effect

In Massachusetts, conservatives preferred victory to purity. Brown is not a social conservative. He’s pro-choice and, while supporting traditional marriage, believes “states should be free to make their own laws in this area.” Yet conservatives and tea partiers joined moderates and independents in the Brown coalition. They struggled, but it was against Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley and President Obama, not against each other.

This was actually one of the smaller manifestations of the Brown Effect. The bigger ones? 

My, my, it’s a long list: an enormous psychological boost for Republicans of all stripes, a firm belief they can win anywhere, help in recruiting strong candidates and raising money for the midterms, the death of the Obama mystique, a critical 41st Republican vote in the Senate, and a stirring example of how to win.

There hasn’t been a Senate triumph as significant since the victory of Democrat Harris Wofford over Republican Richard Thornburgh in the special election in Pennsylvania in 1991 presaged Bill Clinton’s win the next year.

But the Clinton ascendency was short-lived. It collapsed in the Republican landslide of 1994. The breakthrough in Massachusetts may foreshadow a Republican revival after the lost elections of 2006 and 2008. Brown’s victory “was not just symbolic,” insists Republican consultant Frank Luntz. “It’s representative of a change in the public’s mindset.”

But political moods are sometimes ephemeral. So Republicans must be wary. “Republicans—not President Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid​—will decide their future,” Luntz says. The midterm elections in November “will require a genuine break with the past.” Luntz’s advice includes opposing earmarks, “a laser-like focus on wasteful Washington spending,” and “no tolerance for ethical malfeasance whatsoever—no more Mark Foleys.”

Pre-Brown, Republicans were more excited than Democrats. The Brown Effect only adds to their enthusiasm to defeat Democrats, Obama, and their agenda, and elect Republicans. This is crucial because zeal creates turnout. Republican turnout sagged in 2006 and 2008, then soared last year in New Jersey and Virginia, which replaced Democratic governors with Republicans.

The Brown Effect has also galvanized independents and made them almost as fervent as Republicans. My friend Walt Day of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, was a campaign volunteer for the first time and assigned to hold a Honk-If-You’re-for-Brown sign on a street corner. He loved every minute of it.

Republicans are now three for their last three in stirring independents. In New Jersey and Virginia, independents went 2-to-1 for the Republican candidates. In Massachusetts, Brown had a 3-to-1 advantage among independent voters, according to a Rasmussen poll.

Keeping independents on board is key to winning in November. They are fickle. And Obama is preparing to woo them by emphasizing deficit reduction, one of their chief concerns. His pitch may amount to lip service, but a majority of independents fell for Obama’s hollow promises about curbing spending and cutting taxes in 2008.

The Brown Effect has debunked the idea of the persuasiveness of Obama’s oratory. He delivered 29 speeches to promote his health care plan last year, all in vain. His campaigning in New Jersey and Virginia didn’t help the Democrat, nor did his appearance in Boston aid Coakley. If Obama’s magic doesn’t work in Massachusetts, it’s gone.

And if a Republican can win in Massachusetts, a Republican can win anywhere. That’s the new GOP mantra. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who’s recruiting House candidates, has a different version. “If we can win Barney Frank’s district [Brown apparently carried Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District by 1 point], we can win anywhere,” he says.

McCarthy believes 2010 will be a wave election. He’s returning to potential candidates who declined to run earlier, figuring they couldn’t win. After Brown’s victory, “they now see it as doable.” Richard Hanna, who lost narrowly in 2008 to Democrat Michael Arcuri in upstate New York, filed to run again the day after Brown won in Massachusetts.

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