By Aaron Blake - 01/20/10 05:06 AM EST
Republican Scott Brown pulled off one of the most improbable electoral victories in United States history Tuesday, upsetting a Massachusetts Democrat and stealing the majority party’s all-important 60th Senate seat.
Brown won with about 52 percent of the vote. The Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, won 47 percent.
The GOP victory means Democrats will hold only 59 seats in the Senate and creates a new obstacle to completing healthcare reform. The Senate approved a healthcare bill in December with all 40 of the chamber's Republicans voting no. Brown has said he would vote against the legislation.
Failing that, Democrats could pass the Senate bill through the House
and then change the bill through the budget reconciliation process,
which requires a bare majority.
Brown, in his victory speech, urged a quick seating.
"Tonight the independent majority has delivered a great victory," Brown said. "The people, as you know by their votes, have filled the seat themselves, and I'm ready to go to Washington without delay."
Brown would take the seat held for 46 years by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and could play a pivotal role in blocking the healthcare legislation that was Kennedy’s legacy.
Brown's victory represents a major electoral setback for President Barack Obama, who campaigned hard for Coakley in the final days, after it became clear the seat was in jeopardy.
Obama appeared at a rally for Coakley on Sunday and recorded a TV ad, a Web video and a robocall for her. President Bill Clinton did a rally for Coakley in the final week as well.
As it became clear that Brown had become the favorite, Democrats began to criticize each other. Much of the blame was cast toward Coakley, who defended her campaign during her concession speech.
“There will be plenty of Wednesday morning quarterbacking,” said Coakley, who stressed that she campaigned hard for the seat and fought back against suggestions she was a bad candidate.
“We will be honest about the assessment of this race. I fully respect the voters’ choice," she said.
Democrats poured money into the race in the final weeks, including through a late ad buy from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which was drawn into the race thanks to prodigious fundraising by Brown’s campaign.
Brown had more low-profile help, including from several third-party groups that have weighed in on recent special elections. He was raising about $1 million per day at the tail end of the campaign.
The GOP state senator came into the race as an unknown quantity. The father of a successful “American Idol” participant, he was a Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold in his younger days. He played up a populist message to counter the national Democratic support received by Coakley.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in advance of the results on Tuesday that the outcome would not affect Democrats’ resolve to get healthcare reform passed.
Gibbs said Obama was “surprised and frustrated” by the pitched battle and that he was “not pleased” that it turned out to be so difficult for Democrats.
Asked whether a Brown win meant curtains for healthcare, Gibbs said, “I don't think the president believes that.”
Whatever momentum Republicans had from the national environment and from independent voters favoring Brown, the Democrats aimed to make up for with their long-superior infrastructure in the state. Though Massachusetts has elected a series of Republican governors in recent decades, it has an all-Democratic congressional delegation and large Democratic majorities in the State Legislature.
The party was even able to change the rules to get a temporary appointee to serve while the special election was being held, and Kirk delivered an important vote on the healthcare bill.
Coakley emerged from a relatively easy primary with Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and other Democrats, taking 47 percent of the vote and winning by a wide margin.
Brown sailed in his primary, beating a perennial candidate with nearly 90 percent of the vote.
Polling at the tail end of the general election mostly showed Brown with a lead in the single digits, but pollsters estimated that his momentum could carry him to a wide margin of victory.
Coakley drew criticism toward the end of the campaign for a series of gaffes, including saying legendary Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a New York Yankees fan. Schilling, a Republican, later appeared at a campaign rally for Brown and declared his allegiance to Red Sox Nation.
Coakley also allowed Brown to go up with television ads unchallenged for a good chunk of the final month of the campaign, which Democratic strategists say was the beginning of her downfall.
In a pre-emptive move to set expectations, Democratic leaders put out word over the weekend that they expected her to lose the race.
Coakley’s campaign shot back in a memo Tuesday, suggesting that it had made the national party aware of a potentially difficult election as far back as December. It also suggested that a healthcare deal struck with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), which has come to be known as the “Cornhusker Kickback,” created big problems for her campaign.
Democrats tried their best to make an issue of a comment at a Brown rally in which a supporter suggested they shove a “curling iron up her butt” — a reference to a sexual-abuse case that Coakley was criticized for. Brown appeared to smile at the remark, but it never created the firestorm Democrats had hoped.
The race consumed Washington for the final two weeks, with lawmakers still on recess from the holidays and a looming healthcare battle in the background.
It followed a November special election in which Republican problems were on display. Even as the GOP took governors’ seats from Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia, an intra-party battle in upstate New York allowed Democrats to steal the House seat now held by Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.).
The national GOP took a decidedly more cautious approach to the Massachusetts race, worrying that tying itself to Brown might compromise his momentum.
This story was posted at 9:25 p.m. and updated at 12:06 a.m.