BOSTON — In a major upset, Republican Scott Brown on Tuesday captured the U.S. Senate seat long held by liberal champion Edward M. Kennedy, leaving President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul in doubt and marring the end of his first year in office.
Brown’s defeat of once-favoured Martha Coakley for the Massachusetts seat was a stunning embarrassment for the White House after Obama rushed to Boston on Sunday to try to save her candidacy. Her defeat signalled big political problems for the president’s party in November when House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot.
More immediately, Brown will become the 41st Republican in the 100-member Senate, which could allow the Republicans to block the president’s health-care legislation and the rest of Obama’s agenda. Democrats needed Coakley to win for a 60th vote to thwart Republican procedural manoeuvres to block votes on legislation.
With 87 per cent of precincts counted, Brown led Coakley, 52 per cent to 47 per cent.
The election transformed reliably Democratic Massachusetts into a battleground state.
One day shy of the first anniversary of Obama’s swearing-in, it played out amid a backdrop of animosity and resentment from voters over persistently high unemployment, industry bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and partisan wrangling over health care.
For weeks considered a long-shot, Brown, a little-known state senator, rode that wave of bitterness to draw even with Coakley, the state attorney general, in the final stretch of the campaign. Surveys showed his candidacy energized Republicans while attracting disappointed Democrats and independents uneasy with where they felt the U.S. was heading.
“I have no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient.”
Even before the polls closed, Obama administration officials and Coakley’s supporters were blaming each other. Administration officials privately accused Coakley of a poorly run campaign. They played down the notion that Obama or a toxic political landscape had much to do with the outcome.
Coakley’s supporters, in turn, blamed that very environment, saying her lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed a health-care bill shortly before Christmas and after the Christmas Day attempted airliner bombing that Obama himself said showed a failure of his administration.
Wall Street watched closely. The Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 1 per cent. Analysts attributed the increase to hopes the election would make it harder for Obama to make his changes to health care.
That eased investor concerns that profits at companies such as insurers and drug makers would suffer.
Across Massachusetts, voters who had been bombarded with phone calls and dizzied with nonstop campaign commercials for Coakley and Brown gave a fitting turnout despite intermittent snow and rain statewide.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who discounted sporadic reports of voter irregularities throughout the day, predicted turnout ranging from 1.6 million to 2.2 million, 40 per cent to 55 per cent of registered voters.
The Dec. 8 primary had a scant turnout of about 20 per cent.
National issues including health care and the federal budget deficits were on voters’ minds.