US: Shocker in Massachusetts

How the Republicans Won in the Country’s Biggest Democratic Stronghold

Unimaginable a few short weeks ago: Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts was won by a Republican. Two months ago, Democrat, Martha Coakley had a 31% lead in polls over the obscure Republican state senator, Scott Brown. Most had thought that the real race was over for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat when the Democratic primary selection process ended. After all, the seat had been held by the Democratic Party for over 58 years, most of that time by two brothers with the last name Kennedy. Just over a year ago, Obama had carried Massachusetts by a 26% majority. What happened?

On the surface, this was a referendum on the national healthcare bill that was drawn up by the insurance and pharmaceutical giants, and that is indeed part of the story. Even more than that though, the Scott Brown vote reflected fears about the economic crisis, doubts about the so-called recovery and anger at the big bank bailouts. Massachusetts voters are also sick of being taken for granted by the Democratic leaders, and the sitting Democratic Governor, Deval Patrick, is extremely unpopular after waves of budget cuts.

Republican, Scott Brown, defeats Democrat, Martha Coakley, in Massachusetts Senate election

The Democrats control the State House, the entire legislature and Boston’s City Hall. Nobody alive can remember a time when there was not full-scale one-party control of these institutions. Now, on top of that, they have the Governor’s mansion. The Republicans have won elections in Massachusetts with similar good-old-boy candidates, but never a seat in Washington and certainly never a Senator. In power, local Democrats have attacked the teachers’ unions, attacked the fire fighters and cut budgets for other social programmes. For a fuller view of Deval’s Massachusetts Democrats, see the ‘Boston Organizer’ ( newsletter of Boston Socialist Alternative – CWI in USA) archives here.

Massachusetts has been one of the states hardest hit by the financial collapse. Construction, in particular, has bore the brunt of job insecurity, with over 30% of workers “on the bench” without a job. There is no end to this in sight, with further budget cuts being planned and no major building projects in the works. In this context, Scott Brown’s decision to have his campaign run out of a GMC (Gareth Morris Construction – regional construction company) pickup truck was a clever populist ploy.

This winter shocker was about more than just “Obamacare.” Still, it must be acknowledged that Brown rose from obscurity with a campaigning focus on the new health bill. This is in the state that has been seen as the partial model for the bill going through Congress. Massachusetts voters have seen this health care “deform” implemented already, and they are not happy with it. Low-paid workers have been forced to buy inadequate health plans they don’t want, and state subsidies are handed to the health industry; more per capita than in any other state. This is a warning that the only friends the Democrats will make with a new health bill are corporate lobbyists, no matter how eloquently Obama talks about “historic reform.”

If the national bill had been seen as different by having a single-payer “free quality health care for all” position or even just a strong national “public option,” then it would have been much harder for Brown to attack and gain traction. The New York Times in February of 2009 conducted a poll, which found that 59% of Americans felt that the government should provide comprehensive health care, while only 32% wanted health left in the hands of private investors. This is despite the media blackout of a single-payer system and the attention given to obnoxious ‘Tea Party’ lunatics in the town hall meetings.

Two Very Different Campaigns

Brown conducted a national campaign of fund-raising. He sounded like a broken record about being the potential “41st Republican Senator”, a defining seat in Congressional voting patterns along partisan lines. His money came primarily from conservative Republicans outside of the Bay State. He got financial backing which skyrocketed from just over a million to well over 12 million after going national.

This money was used to conduct a grassroots campaign of rallies attended by registered independent voters. The orientation of the campaign, through phone calls and mailings, was almost exclusively to independent voters. This is despite the fact that independent voters do not traditionally even turn out for “special elections” like this. A seemingly desperate strategy caught fire in the economically parched Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and anger turned to shock on election day. Near-record turnouts occurred in an election with only one contested seat, on a day with abysmal weather, switching from snow to rain and back again.

This should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the status quo for-profit health industry. It is a vote against the questionable aspects of the bill; Brown’s advertisements continuously attacked the fact that ordinary Americans will have their health plans taxed under the new law. Brown’s advertisements showed Coakley (Democratic candidate) in Washington, meeting with insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists.

While Brown ran as an “outsider” and an “ordinary citizen” without connections to “politics as usual,” Coakley ran a sloppy ‘insider’ campaign. She enlisted the help of Ted Kennedy’s widow, and in a last gasp of Coakley’s campaign, Obama was brought to Massachusetts, having no impact on polls. This is a significant indicator that enthusiasm for Obama has waned, and the honeymoon is over for the candidate that once inspired unparalleled political euphoria.

End of Obama’s honeymoon

At first dismissive of Brown, Coakley began to run vicious attacking advertisements constantly, in the final weeks of the campaign. In a state known for dirty political campaigning, Coakley’s was considered the worst mudslinging ever, even distorting Brown’s record. These advertisements, a signal that the ruling machine had no idea how to confront challengers, resulted in some quite funny parodies on sports talk radio.

Of course, a conservative Republican moving to Washington should not be considered in any way a step forward or be taken lightly. Brown will be perfectly happy to rub elbows with high-ranking right-wing lobbyists and Republicans. This shows the dangers present in the situation. The widespread anger at the status quo and vacuum on the left that exists is already being exploited by right-wing populism. Isolation, desperation and anti-social behaviour could become more prominent. Growing support for “outsider” Republicans is developing, which could even lead to growing electoral viability for the hard far-right like the ‘Minutemen’ (hardline anti-immigration campaigners) or the ‘Tea Parties’, who could gain an echo with thinly-veiled racist scapegoating.

These dangers also have opportunities inherent within them. Dissatisfaction with the establishment is rampant. Big business is unpopular, and class anger is mounting. If given a lead and well-organised, working people will be ready and able to fight back. The battle against education cuts in California shows this. The occupation at Chicago Windows and Doors about one year ago, again illustrates this point and shows the public sympathy that can be won for workers fighting back. The war, bailouts and health “deform” show that Democrats are not representatives of working people, and if we fight without political representation, then we are entering the ring with one hand tied behind our backs.

We need candidates independent of the two parties, who will take no donations from corporate America. These candidates should stand on a clear programme against budget cuts, against the war funding, against the big bank handouts and for single-payer health care. Independent candidates against cuts in 2010 should be strengthened, and the results should be built upon with an initiative to form a working class party including fighting unions, anti-war campaigners, Green activists and community groups. Without a left alternative, we will be stuck in the cycle of corporate politics that got us into this mess.

Socialists stand against the bailouts of the big banks, the troop surge and the budget cuts. We want to tax big business and the rich to provide a massive public works program. This way, millions of jobs could be created to provide ecologically-friendly mass public transport, adequate affordable housing, first-rate guaranteed health care and free kindergarten to university education. This will of course take a struggle against the rich and powerful with pickets, mass demonstrations, strikes and a workers’ party to fight in our interests. Instead of giving handouts to banks or accepting layoffs in failing industries, the commanding heights of the economy should be put under the democratic control and management of working people and their communities.

What Does this Mean for the 2010 Elections?

Many Democratic strategists, in the pockets of big business, will claim that working class voters have moved in a right-wing direction, and that the Democrats must move rightward as well in order to win seats in 2010, but this is a distortion of the real situation. The anger that Brown capitalised on could to a large extent have been won by an independent alternative to corporate domination. The problem is, the mainstream Democrats are beholden to their corporate masters and will never break with the big business hand that feeds their campaigners and bludgeons workers and youth.

The right-wing Republican agenda has been soundly defeated in the previous elections with the rallying cry of “change.” Young people grew up with an intense hatred of Bush. The country is becoming more racially diverse and more accepting of LGBT people. The corporations, the executives and especially the big banks are widely hated. Environmental concerns are widespread. Polls indicate these facts over and over, yet the Democrats will not represent these trends.

Drew Westen, in ‘The Huffington Post’ commented, “Americans were tired of hearing Obama ’exhort’ bankers and speculators to play nice as they collected their record bonuses for a ‘heckuva’ job in 2009. It took him a year to float the idea of making them pay for a fraction of the damage they had done, and at this point, few Americans have any faith that a tax on big banks will ever become law or that the costs won’t just be passed on to them in new fees.“

Parallels could be drawn to the 1994 mid-term election Republican landslide after two years of Democratic domination achieving nothing but NAFTA’s (North American Free Trade Agreement) attack on living standards. Cue the lesser-evil apologists saying that Brown’s election cost the Democrats a “filibuster-proof” majority that tied their hands. Since when did parties need a guarantee against filibusters to achieve anything? After all, the Democrats allowed Bush to do pretty much whatever he pleased without the Republicans ever having the oh-so-necessary “filibuster proof majority.”

On the ‘Counterpunch’ website, Alexander Cockburn correctly says, “The independents see no trace of the invigorating change pledged by Obama. Working people in the labor unions who supplied the footsoldiers for Obama’s campaign see no improvement in their economic conditions. Everyone knows that Obama is the champion of bankers, not bankrupts. The liberals morosely list twelve months of disasters, from a wider war in Afghanistan, to major betrayals of pledges to restore constitutional restrains after eight years of abuse by Bush and Cheney.”

So, much of the anger could continue to be directed at the Democrats, and the Republicans could pose as outsiders in 2010. In close elections, there is tremendous pressure from the liberal left and many union leaders to support the Democrats. Socialists and other activists will need to withstand this tide in order to lay the basis for a working class resistance to both right-wing parties.

Socialist Alternative (CWI in USA) has been out campaigning alongside other union members and activists in Massachusetts against layoffs and budget cuts over the past few weeks. More than once, we have encountered people enthusiastic about Brown’s campaign. By no means were they “fiscal conservatives”; they actually would say that the best way to stop cuts was to vote Brown! Meanwhile, nearly every Coakley voter started with “I don’t like Coakley, but…”

With no credible left alternative in the special election, we could only say that struggle will stop layoffs, not corporate politicians. If there was an independent candidate, then we could have pointed voters in the direction of an electoral engine for their anger. There is openness to the need for real, fundamental change, and more people are examining socialist ideas. A fight against public sector cuts can focus this aversion to corporate greed, and we need independent candidates to emerge from the battle against cuts and war to challenge both parties in 2010. Otherwise, there will be more Martha Coakleys and more Scott Browns.

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