BOSTON — A year to the day after his inauguration, Barack Obama and his Democratic allies are suddenly scrambling to save his signature health care overhaul and somehow rediscover their political magic after an epic loss in the Massachusetts Senate race.
Republican Scott Brown rode a wave of voter anger to beat Democrat Martha Coakley. The loss was a stunning embarrassment for the White House. It also signaled big political problems for the president’s party this fall when House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot nationwide.
Brown’s victory was so sweeping, he even won in the Cape Cod community where Sen. Edward Kennedy, the longtime liberal icon, died of brain cancer last August.
“While the honor is mine, this Senate seat belongs to no one person, no one political party,” Brown told his supporters Tuesday night. “This is the people’s seat,” he added to chants of “People’s seat!”
Brown will become the 41st Republican in the 100-member Senate, which could allow the GOP to block the health care bill. Democrats needed Coakley to win for a 60th vote to thwart Republican filibusters.
Brown became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from supposedly true-blue Democratic Massachusetts since 1972.
“I have no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient.”
Brown will finish Kennedy’s unexpired term, facing re-election in 2012. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged to seat Brown immediately, a hasty retreat from pre-election Democratic threats to delay his inauguration until after the health bill passed.
Brown led by 52 percent to 47 percent with 100 percent of precincts counted. The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, who is no relation to Edward Kennedy, had less than 1 percent.
The local election played out against a national backdrop of animosity and resentment from voters over persistently high unemployment, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and partisan wrangling over health care.
For weeks considered a long shot, the 50-year-old Brown seized on voter discontent to overtake Coakley in the campaign’s final stretch. His candidacy energized Republicans, including backers of the “tea party” protest movement, while attracting disappointed Democrats and independents uneasy with where they felt the nation was heading.
“I voted for Obama because I wanted change,” said John Triolo, 38, a registered independent who voted in Fitchburg. “I thought he’d bring it to us, but I just don’t like the direction that he’s heading.”
Even before the first results were announced, administration officials were privately accusing Coakley of a poorly run campaign and playing down the notion that Obama or a toxic political landscape had much to do with the outcome.
Coakley’s supporters, in turn, blamed that very environment, saying her lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas and after the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing, which Obama himself said showed a failure of his administration.