Dismissed as terrorists, know-nothings and worse all summer, we’re now considered smart operatives by no less than the New York Times. Blowing out a sure-winner will do that, I guess.
BOSTON — The e-mail message from a Massachusetts supporter to one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement arrived in early December. The state was holding a special election to fill the seat held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, it said, and conditions were ripe for a conservative ambush: an Election Day in the dead of winter with the turnout certain to be low.
“To be honest, we kind of looked at it and said, this is a long shot,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of state campaigns for FreedomWorks, which has become an umbrella for the Tea Party groups. But the group was impressed by the determination of organizers inside this decidedly Democratic state and was intrigued by the notion that this could be a way to effectively derail federal health care legislation.
And so FreedomWorks sent out a query to dozens of its best organizers across the country. Within days, the clamoring response made clear that what seemed improbable suddenly seemed very attainable; within weeks, the Tea Party movement had established a beachhead in Mr. Kennedy’s home state.
Ms. Coakley did almost nothing early on, lulled by the knowledge that Democrats had held the Senate seat for 57 years and emboldened by her 19-point win in a four-way primary. She disappeared from the trail for a few days of rest. Her campaign, struggling for cash, was not conducting polls in the very beginning of January, a critical period, and had yet to broadcast a single commercial.
By the time Ms. Coakley’s campaign and Democratic officials noticed that things were not right in Massachusetts — after reading an outside group’s poll on Jan. 9 that showed Mr. Brown holding a 1 percentage point lead — the fire, as one White House official put it, was out of control. The Tea Party reinforcements had arrived, and a conservative group from Iowa started running commercials here portraying Ms. Coakley as a big spender who would raise taxes, a powerful issue with independent voters.
“It was a classic case of everybody getting caught napping,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, said in an interview. “This guy knew exactly what he was doing. He’s an appealing candidate. Pleasant guy. He’s smart. He tapped into an antipolitician sentiment.”
The two-week period that upended the politics of Massachusetts and the nation may well be remembered as the moment that undid the signature initiative of the Obama presidency, his health care bill. It is a story, based on interviews with more than three dozen people involved in the race, of missed opportunities and tensions among Democratic power centers here and in Washington.
But it also heralds the coming of age of the Tea Party movement, which won its first major electoral success with a new pragmatism, and the potential of different elements of a divided Republican Party to rally around one goal.
Mr. Brown’s views may not have been perfectly aligned with all of the conservative activists — in particular, he supports abortion rights, though he opposes late-term abortions — but he pledged to vote against the health care bill, opposed a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions and opposed proposals to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. In the final week of the race, he raised $1 million a day on the Internet.
“For us, this is not so much about Scott Brown as it is about the idea that if we really collaborate as a mass movement, we can take any seat in the country,” said Eric Odom, executive director of the American Liberty Alliance, who helped organize last spring’s Tax Day Tea Party rallies to protest government spending from his home in Chicago.
For all the political power of the Democratic Party — its control of the White House and both houses of Congress — this contest highlighted serious flaws in its political operation heading into the tough midterm elections, from the political affairs office of the White House to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It demonstrated the extent to which the White House was distracted by the exceedingly difficult task of passing a health care bill before the State of the Union address, along with dealing with an attempted terrorism plot on Christmas Day.
And for Congressional Democratic leaders already chafing at the political cost of Mr. Obama’s health care plan, it was confirmation that the bill could be deadly at the polls for any member of Congress in a competitive race next fall.