Republican Scott Brown is surfing a wave of voter frustration with President Barack Obama that has helped propel the once low-profile Massachusetts state senator from long shot to contender in the race to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Edward Kennedy’s death.
Brown’s meteoric rise caught nearly everyone off-guard, particularly Democratic Party leaders who assumed their candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, would have a cakewalk to the U.S. Capitol after winning a four-way primary in November.
They hadn’t counted on voters like Luis Rodriguez.
The 46-year-old plastics factory supervisor, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1988 from Uruguay and became a citizen last year, said he’s fed up with what he calls the lies told by Washington. It’s enough for him that Coakley supports Obama, who Rodriguez says has failed to make good on his pledge for openness.
“We don’t buy what we can’t afford. We don’t spend what we don’t have,” said Rodriguez, echoing the anger expressed by other voters who say Democrats are too eager to bail out bankers and people who bought homes they couldn’t afford. “These people, what they’re doing now, they’re spending money they don’t have so they can get elected again.”
Despite the Bay State’s liberal reputation, some Massachusetts voters are also chafing at the idea that just because the Senate seat had been held by Kennedy for 47 years, it should automatically go to a Democratic successor.
“One of the things that have blown our minds is people saying, ‘Well, what would Ted Kennedy want?'” said Kathleen Halloran, 47, a teacher in Worcester, who attended a Brown rally with her husband Brian, 38, a police officer, and their two children. “It’s mind-numbing that someone would think … that there was some kind of entitlement or legacy that needs to be passed on.”
Brown’s campaign has seized on those kind of sentiments to climb from a double-digit deficit in the polls to a statistical dead heat in just a couple weeks.
After the Dec. 8 primary, when Coakley coasted past three challengers, she largely faded from view.
Brown, however, held daily press events, and posted the first television ad of the final election stretch, comparing himself with the late President John F. Kennedy.
He used the time when Coakley was out of sight to define himself as a truck-driving everyman, a doting father of two daughters — including a former “American Idol” contestant — and the candidate best suited to push back against a Democratic-dominated Senate.
“If you want someone to lower your taxes and bring common sense back to Washington, then join with me,” he said in a campaign ad that showed him visiting a working-class neighborhood.
Brown has been careful not to label himself too often a Republican in a state where more than half the voters are unconnected to a party. Capturing those independents will be key to winning the election — and harnessing their frustration appears to be working.
Thousands turned out for Brown at a rally Sunday in Worcester while Obama was appearing with Coakley in Boston. Among them was James Johnson, a hotel facilities manager who said electing another Democrat will drag the country even more to the left and away from its constitutional base.
“It’s socialism. It starts with health care. It starts with the government bailouts,” said Johnson, 43, who’s retired from the military. “I work for a living and I see more and more of my money going to people who sit home and don’t do it. I’m all for helping people out, but I like keeping what I earn.”
In addition to showing a dead heat between Brown and Coakley, a Suffolk University poll last week of 500 likely voters also revealed unhappiness with Massachusetts’ landmark health care law, which has been used in part as the blueprint for the national health care overhaul. Close to two-thirds of those polled said the state cannot afford the health care system.
Coakley has promised to be the key 60th vote that Senate Democrats need to move a final version of a national health care bill to Obama’s desk. Brown vows to be the 41st vote against the measure, and a crucial vote in upholding a Republican filibuster. Half in the Suffolk University poll oppose the bill and 61 percent said the federal government can’t afford it.