Fear of a Brown Planet

It’s the least intriguing bit of game theory in Washington right now. Why do Republicans like the idea of Secretary of State John Kerry? Because his departure from the Senate would kick off a special election, opening up an opportunity for the unemployed Scott Brown. Why don’t Democrats thrill at the idea of a top job for the man they wanted to make president? Because – boo! Scott Brown! Republicans are confident, Democrats are in a constant state of bedsheet-clutching terror. You know how it goes.

But why are Democrats so panicky about a candidate they just walloped by eight points? Part realism, part trauma. They beat Brown this year with a huge turnout, which allowed Elizabeth Warren to run 15 points behind Barack Obama and still win. Brown won 1.17 million votes in the 2010 special election. That rose to 1.45 million in 2012. Martha Coakley won 1.06 million in the special, and Warren won 1.68 million votes in the general. Republicans, somewhat cynically, hope that a special election with lower turnout will mean a proportionately bigger fall-off in Democratic votes. November’s exit polls found that the same electorate that was kicking Brown out gave him a 60 percent favorable rating.

That’s where the trauma comes in. Democrats remember a smooth, likeable Brown running over Martha Coakley, gathering momentum as she stumbled all over the place. The final polls before the 2010 special put Brown’s favorables in the high 50s. In the Senate, where he voted the Democrats’ way on some popular bills (DADT repeal, for example), he only got more popular. In June 2011, Brown led any potential Democratic opponent by nine to 25 points. He led Warren by 15 points.

We know what happened next. Brown’s favorables sagged a little, but his job approval sagged more, as he struggled to remain credibly “non-partisan.” The lowlight came at one debate, where he blurted out that his ideal Supreme Court justice was Antonin Scalia, then – as a crowd booed – started naming less-conservative justices. It was like watching a husband accidentally call his wife fat, then name a bunch of things he liked about her outfit. As much as Massachusetts tolerated Brown, its voters really didn’t want a Republican taking up a Senate seat and moving Mitch McConnell closer to control.

If Kerry gets State, it’s up to Gov. Deval Patrick to pick a temporary replacement and set up a special election. There’d be a primary within 150 days of Kerry’s departure, and a general election within 180 days. In 2010, Martha Coakley’s untested popularity was enough to scare most Democrats out of a primary. There were three members of the House delegation ambitious enough to think about the seat; only one, Rep. Mike Capuano, went for it. I see two possible screw-ups for Democrats in 2013: A dogpile that creates an expensive primary, or an appointed senator who runs and gets primaried. Brown and Warren cut a deal that prevented outside money from entering the state, and if Brown ran again without that deal, you could see listless Super PACs pouring in on his behalf. But you need an awful lot to go right for Brown in order for him to win.