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by Rochelle Sharpe, AARP Bulletin, January 19, 2010
• Brown’s victory is a game-changer in the U.S. Senate, giving the GOP 41 votes.
• Kennedy seat had been in family since 1953.
• Brown vows to vote against health care reform legislation.
Republican Scott Brown claimed the U.S. Senate seat of Massachusetts legend Edward M. Kennedy, running a brilliant campaign that derailed the one-time Democratic front-runner and dealt a potentially fatal blow to comprehensive health care reform.
Brown, 50, a state senator, comfortably defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley by campaigning against health care measures Kennedy had championed throughout his almost 47-year legislative career.
Virtually unknown on the national stage until a few weeks ago, Brown surged ahead during the final weeks of the special election after pledging to cast the deciding vote in the Senate against health care reform.
“People do not want the trillion-dollar health care plan that is being forced on the American people,” Brown said Tuesday night as the crowd chanted “41! 41! 41!” —a reference to the new Republican reality in the Senate. “In health care, we need to start fresh, work together to do the job right.“
Brown paid tribute to Kennedy as a tireless public servant. “There’s no replacing a man like that, but tonight I pledge … to be a worthy successor to the late Senator Kennedy,” he said.
The stunning victory could thwart the Obama administration’s entire legislative agenda, since the president no longer has enough votes in the Senate to prevent a Republican filibuster.
“This is an historic election,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis. “It will change the direction of the country.”
Brown’s upset will be viewed as “a repudiation of the president’s leadership,” Blendon said. “It suggests a grassroots revolt against the president’s agenda.”
Brown’s victory sent Democrats scrambling to consider their alternatives. One possibility was an attempt to pass health care reform before Brown is sworn in. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office has 15 days to certify the election results.
One option is forcing either the Senate or House version of health care legislation to a quick vote in the opposite chamber.
Still another option would scale back the scope of the legislation so it could garner a simple majority, which would be widely viewed as a defeat of President Obama’s centerpiece domestic priority.
Health care legislation would be in serious jeopardy, Blendon said, as well as Obama’s plans to deal with climate change, immigration, job creation and tax laws.
Brown’s strong showing also bolsters Republican hopes of gaining a substantial number of congressional seats in the midterm elections this fall, Blendon said. And it may make some Democrats reluctant to support Obama on other bills, fearing controversial votes could jeopardize their own reelection.
“It’s amazing that the election of a junior senator could have such a big impact,” he said.
Obama, who won 62 percent of the Massachusetts vote a little more than a year ago, put his political capital on the line and campaigned for Coakley last weekend. But neither his personal support nor appearances by Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, and former President Bill Clinton were enough to help Coakley win.
It was an astounding turnaround in one of the nation’s most liberal states, where Coakley initially held a comfortable double-digit lead over her opponent and just 12 percent of voters are registered Republicans. But with the country in a deep recession and bitterly polarized over health care, Brown managed to capitalize on public frustration.
While Coakley ran what many considered a lackluster campaign, Brown’s dynamic style energized voters.
One key moment came during a debate when Brown was asked how he could sit in Kennedy’s Senate seat and veto health reform.
“With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat,” he replied. “It’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
Brown said he opposed the current health care legislation because it would raise taxes. Voter sentiment was on his side — a poll by Public Policy Polling in recent days said 48 percent of Massachusetts voters opposed Obama’s health care plan compared with 40 percent who supported it.
A three-term state senator and member of the National Guard for three decades, Brown argued throughout the campaign that higher taxes stifle economic growth.
Deborah Banda, state director for AARP Massachusetts, said that scrapping the health legislation would be a mistake.
The proposed reform would expand health insurance coverage to more than 30 million Americans, close the gap in the Medicare prescription drug plan, and create a new federal insurance program to defray long-term care costs.
“America has been waiting for health care reform for decades,” she said. “The time to act is now. The cost of doing nothing is too great.”
She said she hoped that Brown would continue Kennedy’s support for older Americans.
“Senator Kennedy left a long legacy of fighting to ensure that our seniors are protected and have the supports they need as they age,” she said. “This is the legacy we would like to be followed.”
Rochelle Sharpe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance writer based in Brookline, Mass.
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