The Great Brown Hope?

Why Republicans should try to contain their excitement about winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Scott Brown

Republicans around the nation, not just in Massachusetts, are toasting Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley tonight, and rightfully so. The “people’s seat,” as Brown famously described it, had been in Democratic hands since JFK beat Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952. A month ago, Brown was considered a long shot, and as recently as Sunday, FiveThirtyEight.com called the race a tossup. And yet, by the end, his margin of victory was both comfortable and unsurprising.

But it’s important not to read too much into tonight’s results. The personalities and idiosyncrasies of the candidates shape every election, of course. Yet even if Brown weren’t blessed with unusual political talent and an unusually incompetent opponent, his victory shouldn’t be cause for Republicans to get overly excited.

Still, let’s dwell on the specifics of the Massachusetts race for a moment. First and foremost, Martha Coakley was an awful candidate. Her gaffes have been widely recounted. But just for kicks, let’s recap: Forgetting to campaign in the first place. Dissing Fenway Park. Dissing Curt Schilling. Claiming there are no terrorists in Afghanistan. Attending fundraisers with lobbyists (with bonus video of an aide shoving a reporter!). It may well be the case that Coakley lost the race more than Brown won it.

Brown, meanwhile, was the right candidate at the right time. He has charisma enough to pull off opposing the congressional health care bills, even though he voted for Massachusetts’ health care reform bill in 2006, and to appeal to both mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party crowd that almost carried Doug Hoffman to Congress last year in New York. He worked hard, holding 66 actual campaign events and using the virtual space of the Internet for a savvy social media campaign and a 24-hour, $1.3 million “money bomb.” He also had the advantage of running in a special election, giving him a national spotlight at a time when Americans are increasingly uneasy about health care reform and government spending.

It’s hard to say whether the Republicans will be able to replicate Brown’s success nationally. In 1994, when the Republicans took control of the House and the Senate in the first midterm after Bill Clinton’s election, they were guided by Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America. Now, instead of offering contracts to the public, Republicans are holding their own candidates to “purity pledges.”

We have an RNC chairman who’s known better for his gaffes and his speechmaking fees than anything else and who is on record saying the party won’t take back the House in 2010. (Can you blame him, when a new poll shows that 25 percent of the public has a positive view of Republicans?) The most visible—though hardly the most likely—contender for the 2012 GOP nomination is Sarah Palin, who quit her job as governor of Alaska to write a book, take a Fox News gig, and appear on the cover of InTouch magazine. The party’s great hope for the future, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, earned comparisons to Kenneth from 30 Rock for his disastrous response to Obama’s congressional address last February and hasn’t been heard from since. Perhaps most telling—and most troubling—is the London Telegraph’s recently published list of top conservatives: Dick Cheney, unlikely ever to run for office again, is No. 1, followed by Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Palin, Robert Gates (oh, breath of fresh air), and Glenn Beck.

Don’t get me wrong: Brown’s win is still important—and satisfying. It will provide the party with a needed morale boost going into this fall’s campaign, and it will be entertaining to watch Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid try to get anything done without a supermajority that has slipped in and out of his fingers in the past year. So pass the Sam Adams. But let’s not party like it’s 1994.