A case study on Brown’s campaign: Experience as a candidate counts

Kevin Rennie Contributor
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The market in high-mileage GMC pickup trucks spiked on Wednesday as Republican candidates strained to stuff themselves into the Scott Brown template for victory in hostile terrain. The Massachusetts Republican spent the past two weeks as the second-most surprised person in the Bay State as he detected and seized a whirlwind of discontent.

Democrat Martha Coakley, the most surprised and unable to conceal it, was the author of her many misfortunes. Democratic candidates may have an easier time not running a Coakley-like campaign than Republicans will copying Brown’s.

Experience as a candidate counts. As a Republican in Democratic Massachusetts, Brown was a veteran of tough campaigns. He took and kept a vow of silence on uttering the dreaded “R” word. Brown was unusually disciplined for a candidate with such an affable personality. He seems like the sort who could be drawn into the kind of casual conversations that veer into quips, jokes and observations that explode. He did not. Brown also pulled off the rare feat of speaking for the angry without seeming angry himself.

That leads to one of the hidden talents of Scott Brown as a candidate. He hired smart people and listened to them. They weren’t able to get Mitt Romney nominated for president in 2008, but they achieved something more remarkable in Brown’s victory. Brown did not stray from his message on health care, spending and taxes. That Brown’s advisers constructed high and narrow guardrails for him became apparent on election night when the triumphant winner descended into a rambling, endless, and bordering on an uncomfortable public display of narcissism in his victory speech.

A special election allowed energized voters from Massachusetts and elsewhere to concentrate their efforts on one winter race. The demands on time, volunteers and money will be stretched among many tempting targets around the country in the fall.

Nevertheless, New England Republicans have special cause for jubilation. The crushing burden of George W. Bush has been lifted. Martha Coakley and her surrogates tried to link Brown to Bush and nobody cared. The most menacing voice repeating “Republican Scott Brown” in ads sounded like a parody of an attack ad.

Republicans should hope that shocked and despairing Democrats will fail to recognize the raw elitism of the Coakley campaign. She sneered at the notion of campaigning in the cold, dissed Red Sox legend Curt Schilling, and ducked debates and reporters.

Coakley also could not stop reading from the Democratic book of orthodoxy. The terrorists are gone from Afghanistan, she claimed. She resisted saying she’d treat the alleged Christmas plane bomber as an enemy combatant. Especially in the Northeast, where the attacks of 9/11 began, national security matters, and events cause the region’s voters to act on their fears of terrorism.

The power of the negative ad may be in decline, or maybe Coakley’s will cause candidates to recognize some limits. As popular Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr pointed out in his syndicated show the day after the election, Coakley’s negative ads were “vile.” Accusing Brown of wanting to deny rape victims medical treatment felt like a tawdry bid to destroy, not simply win.

Brown didn’t take the sleazy bait. His daughters responded to Coakley’s negative ads while Brown kept talking about health care, taxes, and national security. Meanwhile, a Niagara of online donations and an army of volunteers who flooded his campaign offices allowed Brown to match and surpass Coakley in some campaign mechanics.

Tone-deaf, stiff Coakley makes us wonder if Attorneys General may not make the most nimble candidates in tumultuous times. Coakley could appear shiftless and clumsy–like when she breezed by fallen Weekly Standard reporter John McCormack outside a Washington, D.C., fundraiser. Attorneys general become accustomed to picking their issues, not having them thrust upon them. Unlike Happy Warrior Brown, Coakley was a joyless campaigner.

Democrats woke up too late. Their reputation for superior organization in the Northeast has suffered, though who knows what they might have accomplished with another week. The most hopeless Republican candidate will now await a deluge of troops and donations. Buy a pickup truck if it makes you feel better. Your time and money would be best spent, however, hiring Romney veteran and Brown campaign consultant Eric Fehrnstrom and his Boston colleagues. That’s the quickest way for Republican candidates to frighten their Democratic rivals.

Kevin Rennie writes a political column for the Sunday edition of The Hartford Courant. A lawyer and former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and State Senate, he’s also written for The National Journal and The New York Post. He’s appeared on Fox News and CNBC.