The Lessons Of Coakley's Loss For The Midterms

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

BOSTON--Scott Brown's unexpected victory in the special Senate election here indicates voter unease with the political status quo -- it's a development that should force Democrats to rethink their national strategy, particularly on health care messaging, heading into November.

Progressive labor, environmental, women's and other groups burned through an estimated $5 million on the race, with the Democratic Party alone spending more than $1 million. Organizing for America, the elaborate voter contact framework erected during Obama's campaign, sent multiple emails and text messages to the party faithful, pleas that ultimately proved ineffective.

This leaves strategists to question whether Obama's perceived neglect of the progressive base doomed this race from the beginning. Many progressives have been furious about Obama's positions on a publicly-funded health care option and abortion funding, ignoring broader economic issues.

"People made the race about health care, about Ted Kennedy," said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I think folks also want to know, what are you going to do for jobs? The contrast wasn't made, it seems."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., pointed out to reporters Monday that GOP Washington establishment leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner were largely quarantined from Brown's campaign, indication that the GOP brand in Massachusetts and nationwide is still in doubt. Yet Democrats say Coakley didn't effectively exploit this fact.

"Scott Brown did not run as a Republican. The Republican label was not used in Browns' paid media or messaging," Rudominer said. "Brown did not have Republican surrogates campaign for him. Brown event kept former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney off the campaign trail."

Rudominer said the Coakley campaign lost control of its messaging, allowing Brown to run as a populist hiding his ideological roots and ties to the people responsible for the economic meltdown of 2008. He said House Democrats wouldn't make the same mistake.

"When Democrats are aggressive and they define their Republican opponents early on, Democrats win. You can't let a charge against any Democrat go unanswered," Rudominer said. "Washington Republicans are certain to over play this and delude themselves into thinking their damaged brand is back-which they do at their own peril."

Democrats were quick to characterize the race between Brown and Coakley as a devolution into a personality contest with the charismatic candidate trumping the lackluster one to the detriment of policy issues.

Yet Democrats held back no punches, pouring money and bringing in their biggest personalities, from Obama to former President Bill Clinton, to defend a seat that had remained in Democratic hands for nearly six decades, including nearly 47 under liberal lion Ted Kennedy.

Brown was also able to surpass Coakley in online social networks, a key indicator of voter enthusiasm.

"Perhaps the Coakley folks may have gone to sleep on that," said Rudominer, who pointed out that his committee maintains the strongest metrics on social networks of the four House and Senate campaign committees.

For their part, Republicans say they feel the wind behind their backs and plan to focus their November strategy on health care.

"Win or lose, Democrats will try to play this race off as an isolated incident, but the recent spate of polling in swing districts across the country proves that Massachusetts isn't the exception of the 2010 election cycle, its the rule," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Congressional Campaign Committee. "Any Dem who voted for the healthcare bill now knows how big of an albatross they will have hanging around their necks."

Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the GOP was in good shape before Brown's unexpected surge.

"Massachusetts aside, Republican candidates as of January 1 were or are ahead in the polls in six Democrat-controlled states (Nevada, North Dakota, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arkansas) and tied in Illinois where Rep. Mark Kirk is our likely nominee," Walsh emailed to The Huffington Post. "Similarly, in the open seat that we're defending, we are ahead in all of them (New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida) and tied in Missouri. Not coincidentally, in every one of these states, polls show that a majority of voters disapprove of the Democrats health care bill."