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Learning The Wrong Lessons

After the off-year elections, Democrats could cling to Bill Owens’s victory in NY-23 as a shred of evidence that the Tea Party message could hurt Republicans. Scott Brown’s victory exposes NY-23 as a fluke. ~Matt Continetti

I had already been thinking about the three special elections for Congress we have seen in the last year before Continetti wrote this, but this reminded me of an important point that needs to be made. It is a simple observation, and so obvious that it might be considered unnecessary: candidates and campaigns matter. Hoffman showed no interest in the concerns of the district he wanted to represent, his allies belittled local interests as “parochial” and he served as little more than a mouthpiece of national party and movement activist slogans. NY-23 was lost in much the same way that Coakley lost in Massachusetts: a candidate who seemed indifferent to the people he wanted to represent proved to be a horrible fit with the electorate. Similarly, Jim Tedisco in NY-20 ran an atrocious campaign that was marred by poor messaging, confusion over his positions and the interference of the national party. Tedisco, Hoffman and Coakley have something important in common: all of them had every advantage in terms of party registration, funding and and voting patterns, and they squandered all of these. As a result, two solidly Republican districts are now represented by Democrats (Owens and Murphy) and one of the most politically liberal states in the country will have a Republican Senator. There is a pattern, but it is not one that fits self-congratulatory narratives from either party. Parties and candidates that exhibit feelings of entitlement and/or disdain for the voters, the places they live and the issues that actually matter to them will be voted down regardless of how those electorates voted in the past.

In NY-23 the problem was not so much that the “Tea Party message” hurt Republicans. It was that the message was simply not relevant to a majority of voters in the district, because it could not address concerns that were specific to the district. Does Brown’s victory demonstrate that “the Tea Party message” has caught on in the state of the original Tea Party? Let’s think about this a bit more. Yes, Brown has courted Tea Partiers, and Tea Partiers were important in raising funds and working on behalf of his campaign. He has come out against a health care bill they also oppose, and no doubt they favor the tax cut he has proposed, but it is hard to see how electing a moderate-to-liberal Republican, who is reportedly on the center-left of the Massachusetts GOP, proves the electoral viability of the full-on “Tea Party message” anywhere, much less in the Northeast. Tea Partiers’ support for Brown showed a willingness to back candidates and make alliances with politicians who would never pass rigorous ideological purity tests. That seems to be evidence of their ability to be flexible and compromise to build a political coalition.

We should be careful to distinguish the message that prevailed tonight from the message that pro-Brown activists have been advancing in the past. Having just spent the last several months insisting that Obama overreached and has badly misread the public mood, Republicans seem to be in an awful hurry to attach far too much significance to a remarkable, but so far unique, special election. There are important differences between this election and the special election two years ago in MA-05, but I would note that the response from mainstream conservatives is much the same as it was then. Jim Ogonowski’s surprisingly competitive, failed bid to win an open seat against Paul Tsongas’ widow had at least a couple things in common with Brown’s run against Coakley. Like Tsongas, Coakley was preferred by party establishment forces, and Brown was able to tap into populist discontent even more effectively than Ogonowski by running as the insurgent outsider. Despite the obvious differences between those races, the mainstream conservative readiness to declare unusual elections in Massachusetts to be bellwethers for the general elections in the fall remains the same. After the MA-05 result, we heard a lot of arguments similar to those we’ve heard in the last couple of weeks. Usually, conservatives emphasized how much better than expected Ogonowski had done and how this portended a shift back to the GOP in November. That shift never materialized. This year the GOP has the advantage that it is the out-party and is bound to make some gains, but my guess is that they continue to read too much into the outcomes of special elections in Massachusetts and will end up gaining far fewer seats than they expect.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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