Scenes from the Revolution
State Senator Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate win over Attorney General Martha Coakley stunned the nation, derailed Obama’s signature political initiative, and handed state Republicans their first major victory in decades. Here, a behind-the-scenes look at the final days of the historic campaign for Ted Kennedy’s seat.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2009
It begins — or begins to end — with a secret that is hard to keep.
In a bland three-story building on Second Street in Washington, DC, pollsters for the National Republican Senatorial Committee decipher a new survey they conducted. The results shock not only them but also the NRSC’s leader, the gray-haired, slightly dour Senator John Cornyn, from Texas: In the Massachusetts race for the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat, Democrat Martha Coakley holds a mere 3-point lead over Republican Scott Brown among independents most likely to vote in the January 19 election.
This is astonishing. Coakley is the unbeatable candidate, the Democrat who emerged from a tough four-way primary with a 19-point win and is now running on such progressive standbys as tightly regulated banks and universal healthcare — and in a state that reveres its progressive standbys. Scott Brown is the stand-in, the Republican whose candidacy has been considered a dogged pursuit of a moral victory: Maybe one day he’ll get a statewide seat out of this, the thinking goes, state auditor perhaps. “Winning by losing” is actually how Brown’s campaign leaders have framed his chances against Coakley.
But this poll is something. When Senator Cornyn scans it, he sees the anxiety of a populace in a time of near-double-digit -unemployment. And the poll shows Massachusetts’ independent voters — the largest bloc in the state, at 52 percent — to oppose by a two-to-one margin President Barack Obama’s signature initiative, his universal healthcare proposal. Brown is against Obama’s measure. Cornyn knows the issue can be exploited to Brown’s advantage and, with any luck, provide national Republicans with the pivotal 41st vote needed to filibuster the bill in the United States Senate.
Cornyn shares the poll with Brown’s campaign staff in Massachusetts two days before Christmas. But what he does next is more shocking than the actual poll results: nothing.
As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cornyn could raise gobs of money for Brown, a man suddenly poised to win the unwinnable. But a fundraising flurry might pique the suspicions of his Democratic counterparts.
No, Cornyn decides, better to keep this poll under wraps. Better to tell Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, an excitable man, to shut the hell up about any exciting news he hears out of Massachusetts, and to distance all other national Republicans from Brown, too, so that he’s able to run as the independent he claims to be. Better to keep the Democrats drowsy and dreaming about the inevitability of Martha Coakley’s victory.
Better to see if doing nothing might accomplish the most of all.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22
Martha Coakley’s campaign headquarters are in the former Schrafft’s candy factory in Charlestown, the six-story landmark that the Flatley Company purchased and renovated in 1984. It’s a beautiful building, but once past the pillared, marble-floored atrium, the corridors narrow and dim into ordinary office space.
Down one such hallway, behind a door to the right, the Coakley campaign office surprises. It is downright effervescent: The expansive area seems to be painted entirely in white, as if to match the campaign’s optimism.
Coakley staffers have every reason to be bright and cheery today. They’ve just conducted their own poll. Potential voters overwhelmingly approve of Coakley. They think she’s done a great job as Massachusetts attorney general. Admittedly, there is angst among independent voters — her lead seems to be narrowing there. But Coakley’s pollster, Celinda Lake, a longtime DC operative, still has her up 19 points against Scott Brown.
Campaign manager Kevin Conroy spends time considering these figures. He is smart, boyish-looking, with doleful eyes and great wisps of blond hair. This is Conroy’s first time running a campaign; before this he was a top deputy in Coakley’s AG’s office. His ties to Coakley are why she, and her veteran political strategist, Dennis Newman, chose Conroy for the job. He knows her, and she trusts him.
Conroy has a decision to make: whether to continue tracking voter sentiment through the holidays. He has the money to keep polling. The $937,000 in the campaign coffers is more than enough to gauge any shift in the mood of the populace. But Conroy, Newman, and Coakley would like to save as much of this money as possible for the advertising blitz that the campaign will demand, at the end. This strategy, running ads in the waning days before the election, was how Coakley won the Democratic primary on December 8.
Voters probably won’t pay attention to politics over the holidays anyway, Conroy thinks. This is in part the reason Coakley’s schedule will be light next week. (Between Christmas and New Year’s she’ll pencil in only two campaign stops, for an endorsement from New Bedford’s mayor on the 30th, and for the inauguration of Newton Mayor Setti Warren on January 1.)
Conroy decides Coakley has a large-enough lead against an unknown candidate whose party hasn’t been elected to a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts since 1972. Sure, support among independent voters seems to be slipping, but it’s not an overriding concern. Better to enjoy the season. From Conroy’s vantage point, it should be a merry Christmas — and a very happy new year.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 27
Scott Brown’s campaign staffers gather in their drab three-story headquarters in Needham. Sitting around a conference table are Eric Fehrnstrom, Peter Flaherty, and Beth Myers of the Shawmut Group, the Boston-based political consultancy firm that advised Mitt Romney during his gubernatorial and presidential runs; campaign manager Beth Lindstrom; Rob Willington, Brown’s social-media and online director; and Peter Fullerton, Brown’s political director. They’re all here to discuss one thing: what to do next.
The NRSC poll has stunned them. A month ago, Brown was down 31 points. Now the poll has him trailing by 13. Among independents, there’s only that 3-point margin. Brown has come this far by working 18-hour days, while his opponent has taken a more laissez-faire (some might say entitled) approach.
We need to move now and capitalize on the NRSC poll, Fehrnstrom tells the group. After discussing the matter, they come to believe that waiting out this supposed dead week will only benefit Coakley. They decide to run the ad.
This isn’t just any political ad Fehrnstrom and the Shawmut Group have in mind. It opens in grainy black and white, with President John F. Kennedy discussing an income tax cut for the nation’s top earners, and then morphs into Scott Brown finishing Kennedy’s thoughts, about how a tax cut will create jobs and improve the economy.
It will be risky comparing Brown, a relatively unknown Republican, to any Democratic idol, especially a Kennedy — even more so in Kennedy country. But Fehrnstrom knows what he’s doing. He’s a former Herald reporter who left journalism to handle media relations for the state treasurer’s office before moving on to the ad agency Hill, Holliday, and then to work for Romney. He understands, perhaps better than anyone, how to convey the essence of a candidacy in a few words or in some fleeting images. “Fehrnstrom is central casting out of Mad Men,” one Democratic operative will later say. Handsome, solidly built, sometimes favoring black-framed glasses that make him look both smart and cool, he “is Don Draper,” the Democrat says. And Fehrnstrom’s title for the JFK-Brown spot epitomizes his -Draperlike talent for concision and clarity: “Different People, Same Message.”
The ad is so novel, Brown soon appears on Fox News with Sean Hannity, and Chris Matthews discusses the spot on MSNBC. On Fox, Brown repeats its theme: His ideas aren’t so different from JFK’s. Brown begins billing himself as a “Scott Brown Republican”: an independent thinker who’ll vote how he, and not the party, sees fit.
Money pours in, which allows the nearly broke Brown campaign to air another ad: Brown in his barn jacket, driving across the state in his GMC, looking directly into the camera and telling viewers he’s just like them.
The truck ad runs into the early days of January, which means, all told, Massachusetts voters will see roughly a week of Brown spots, and not a single paid ad from Coakley.
The imbalance allows Brown to define his candidacy, as silence begins to define Coakley’s.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2010
A new independent poll from Rasmussen Reports shows Coakley’s overall lead diminishing to 9 points, 50 to 41 percent. Among the all-important independents, she now trails by a large margin, 21 percent to 65. Coakley’s seemingly cavalier attitude — letting Brown run a week of unopposed ads, limiting campaign stops — is harming her candidacy. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Massachusetts voters now disapprove of the nation’s healthcare bill, a telling tally in a state with its own universal coverage — and a potential boon to Brown, who vows to stop the national passage of a similar plan.
But what the data represents, even more than the sum of its conclusions, is what the race will become from here on out: a national affair. As hundreds of thousands of dollars flow into Brown’s headquarters, much of it from outside the state, national Democratic operatives begin bombarding Coakley’s headquarters in Charlestown with phone calls and e-mails, asking what her own polling shows.
The Coakley campaign is forced to admit that from December 22 until now, it hasn’t polled at all.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6
The Democratic Party is not pleased.
Among the concerned is U.S. Senator John Kerry. He wants to know what he can do to help. His office begins calling Coakley’s; Kerry would like to speak with the candidate directly. The campaign’s response? “Talk to Dennis.”
Dennis is Dennis Newman, the longtime political consultant for Coakley. Kerry’s office calls her office repeatedly in the coming days, but the call is never returned.
Finally, Kerry himself gets on the phone from his home in Beacon Hill. He’s recuperating from hip surgery and is not in a good mood. “If she gets elected,” he tells a Coakley staffer, “her colleagues are going to want to reach her, and she is going to want to reach her colleagues. That’s how this works.” A meeting is arranged for Saturday, January 9, at Kerry’s home.
Kerry isn’t the only one encountering insularity from the Coakley campaign. In the week following the Rasmussen poll, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray organizes 50 or so state legislators, mayors, councilors, and activists in Worcester County, and has them join him one night in the back room at Viva Bene, an Italian restaurant in Worcester. Murray’s message to the county’s power players is simple: We all need to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible — this race is getting too close. Murray himself has recently been asked to help the Coakley campaign, and wants a show of hands as to who else has been contacted by Coakley’s staff. Maybe three hands go up. Fifty of the most connected people in the county, and almost none of them contacted. “Clearly there was a level of frustration,” Murray will later say. “I think it was problematic to have your statewide campaign operation being run completely out of Boston.”
Even in Boston, though, one very powerful Democrat feels excluded. Early in the morning of January 4, hours before being inaugurated to an unprecedented fifth term, Mayor Tom Menino is worrying about Martha Coakley. He’d heard the campaign was in trouble and wanted to help, but he couldn’t get a call back. Why don’t they want my help? he keeps wondering.
A longtime Coakley aide will later offer this explanation for the candidate’s lack of interaction with certain Democratic figures: “Kevin [Conroy], Dennis [Newman] — they thought they knew Martha better than anyone else.” After all, running things their way had won her the primary by nearly 20 points.
But Newman, Conroy, and Coakley have never been in a political battle as heated as this.
MONDAY, JANUARY 11
Roughly 150 union members — Teamsters, SEIU, and AFL-CIO guys — gather on the lawn and line the driveway outside the JFK Library an hour before the election’s final statewide debate at UMass Boston. They wear their union shirts and hold “Martha Coakley for U.S. Senate” signs. As Coakley and her entourage arrive, the union members cheer. Coakley smiles and waves and walks inside.
Coakley’s strategy has always been to raise money, solicit endorsements from big-name Democrats, and prepare her best remarks for the cameras — the reason she’s quick to head inside tonight. She considers the race too short to do the glad-handing, sidewalk-pounding, door-knocking, please-vote-for-me politicking.
Scott Brown doesn’t think the race is too short for that. Glad-handing is pretty much all he does. Tonight he’s well on his way to logging 66 public events in the general election, to Coakley’s 19. His truck ad may have been disingenuous in its Everyman theme — the man owns five properties, after all, plus a timeshare in Aruba — but it was honest in terms of interpersonal mileage. Since as far back as September, he’s appeared at every spaghetti dinner that would have him.
Brown and his entourage arrive minutes after Coakley, and instead of heading inside toward the cameras, he shakes the hand of as many union members as he can. It takes a while, and the night is cold, but Brown is adamant. “Hi, my name is Scott,” or “Hey, thanks for coming out,” he says, over and over. One after another, the union members in the Coakley gear respond, “We’re with you, Scott. We’re just getting paid $50 to be here.”
More than the candidates’ disagreements over Obama’s healthcare bill — Coakley for it, Brown against it — more than Coakley’s almost obscene flub implying that there are no terrorists in Afghanistan (a misstatement that comes weeks after seven CIA operatives, including one from Massachusetts, were killed there), the debate’s most enduring moment came from Brown: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat,” he said. “It’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
TUESDAY, JANUARY 12
At Brown headquarters in Needham, campaign contributors line up out the door to drop off checks. Letters and e-mails are flooding the campaign — so many from all over the country that staffers print them out and post them floor to ceiling on one wall of the conference room. When that wall fills up, the e-mails and letters take over a second wall, and then a third.
Out in the field, campaign workers are running out of yard signs. Brown supporters drop by headquarters and the other campaign offices, asking for more. The staff hears that campaign signs are disappearing, but then learns that Brown supporters are stealing signs from each other and replanting them along streets with heavier traffic.
That’s not news to state Representative Vinny deMacedo. He drove around Plymouth a few days ago and stopped his car short. People had started staking homemade Scott Brown signs in their yards. He’d never seen anything like that, Democrat or Republican. He’s going to win this, deMacedo thought.
Meanwhile, DC Democratic operatives swarm Coakley headquarters. Depending on the perspective, either they were called in to save the campaign, or they finally got off their asses and traveled to Boston to help raise money, get out the vote, and handle an increasingly national press corps. Either way, what was once a campaign staff of 40 now numbers roughly 150. People from the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — all have different ideas and agendas, at times overlapping responsibilities with the Massachusetts staff. A meeting scheduled to hash out everyone’s role is, for some reason, cancelled. Chaos ensues. “Tuesday is not a good day,” one Coakley staffer will later say.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13
Two nights ago, after the debate, the Brown campaign announced it had raised $1.3 million in a single day, a day that is now known as the “money bomb.” Eric Fehrnstrom and the rest didn’t think they could top it.
But each day the campaign rakes in more than the money bomb. Brown ultimately will raise $13 million, $12 million of it online. All this cash allows his social-media director, Rob Willington, to create an iPhone and BlackBerry app that finds likely voters for Brown on specific streets in specific towns, and reminds them to vote next Tuesday.
And who begins to use this new tool? The volunteers that keep appearing at Brown’s field offices day after day but can’t find an empty slot at the phone bank. All weekend, Willington sends them into the streets, app in hand.
The Democratic groups begin bombarding the airwaves with negative ads against Brown. The last week of the campaign, the DSCC spends $1.6 million on ads, SEIU $572,000, and the women’s political group Emily’s List $170,000, according to figures from the Coakley campaign. Frictions develop over the ads’ effectiveness. “These are the national guys, so you want to pay them a bit of deference,” one Bay Stater close to the Coakley campaign will say.
But the national people don’t have the feel for the local -populace, don’t understand how quickly the average Massachusetts voter can recoil from blunt tactics. One national spot spells the state’s name as “Massachusettes,” which says as much about the DC Democrats as it does about the Coakley campaign.
To make matters worse, the Globe runs a story in which Coakley sneers at the thought of shaking hands in the cold to win votes. And on WBZ Radio, she calls Red Sox legend Curt Schilling a Yankees fan. “She could have excused any one of these things. But when you add them all up, they hurt her,” a Brown campaign staffer will later say.
By Friday, the news reports are citing a Suffolk University/Channel 7 poll that shows Brown leading by 4 points.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 16
Kevin Conroy heads into a meeting at Coakley headquarters and says, “The biggest thing we need to decide today is how I’m going to get Jets tickets for tomorrow’s game.”
He means to “bring a little levity to an otherwise serious moment” — Conroy is known to have a dry sense of humor — but to some the joke doesn’t come off as funny. Are you serious? There are a lot of people here working very hard, thinks one aide, who sees the moment as a perfect illustration of Conroy’s naiveté and how poorly he has managed the campaign. Conroy will later dispute that idea, adding, “My critics will think what they will.”
Hyannis looks like one big Fourth of July parade. Brown’s bus tour has already seen record crowds in Quincy and Plymouth, but here, the last stop of today’s tour, supporters line Main Street by the thousands — so many people, police must close off the street.
On the bus, Representative Vinny deMacedo can’t help but laugh. “Wow!” he keeps shouting as the bus forges ahead. He glances over at Brown, but Brown doesn’t smile. He looks humbled by it all.
Brown gets off the bus to rabid cheers. Supporters are waving campaign signs and homemade posters and even bloody socks, a poke at Coakley’s gaffe about Curt Schilling. He hops into the bed of his truck — the famous truck — which has doubled as a soapbox for the last days of this campaign. Someone hands him a bullhorn and he delivers a 20-minute speech about lower taxes, healthcare, and changing Washington. He’s repeatedly interrupted by cheers. When he’s finished, he jumps back down and starts shaking every hand he can find. Tommy Doyle’s is a few blocks away. It takes Brown roughly an hour to get there.
The bar is above its capacity of about 380 people; another 500 stand outside. Adam Dubitsky, Brown’s traveling press secretary, comes across two older women. “We were here in 1960,” they tell him. “And this has the same energy.”
Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes pops by Coakley headquarters around 9 p.m. Veteran campaign workers know surprise visits often lead to inspiring pep talks, but Haynes instead says he’s having a hard time getting his members to vote for Coakley. He adds that he’ll try to change their opinion in the remaining three days. “It was pathetic,” one campaign aide will recall. “The room just deflated.”
SUNDAY, JANUARY 17
The Coakley campaign comes to Tommy Doyle’s, too, but this time there’s no overflow crowd, no need for a bullhorn, not even here, mere miles from the Kennedy compound in -Hyannisport. Maybe 100 people convene at the bar.
Coakley delivers a brief speech to tepid response. Then she leaves for a stop in Quincy, and then for Boston, where President Obama is coming to try to save her campaign.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 19: ELECTION DAY
At 4 p.m., in the presidential suite of the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, Scott Brown is practicing his victory speech. He has not prepared a concession speech. Eric Fehrnstrom never told him to consider one.
The polls close at 8. The results from the Democratic base of Greater Boston are not nearly as strong as the Coakley campaign had hoped. Conroy and Dennis Newman are monitoring returns by phone, text, Internet, and TV in a fifth-floor room at the Sheraton Boston, the same hotel where a month earlier they celebrated Coakley’s primary win. By 8:10, Newman’s seen enough. He gives Conroy a shake of the head.
He and Conroy take the elevator up to the suite where Coakley is waiting with her husband.
There are two lines on the telephone that Brown aide Maria Coakley (no relation to Martha) is to monitor in the presidential suite, in an office just off the living room. The first rings incessantly, local politicians reporting results. The second is a secure line that the attorney general is to call if she concedes.
Nearly 30 people are in the living and dining rooms: Mitt Romney, Doug Flutie, Lenny Clarke, talk-show host Jay Severin, House Minority Leader Brad Jones. The TVs are on. No one’s drinking anything stronger than coffee. The chatter is anxious.
At 9:10, the secure line rings. Oh my God. This is too early, Maria thinks.
She answers. “Scott Brown’s room at the Park Plaza Hotel.”
The man on the other end says his name is Kevin Conroy, and that Martha Coakley would like to speak with Scott Brown.
“Hold on, please. Please don’t hang up,” Maria says.
She spots the candidate in a corner of the living room.
“Scott,” she says. “We’ve got the call.”
Brown smiles. He moves toward the phone and yells:
“We’ve got the call!”
This story is based on more than three dozen interviews with political insiders, Federal Election Commission records, ad-purchase data, news archives, and YouTube footage.