Ted Kennedy came close to losing his U.S. Senate seat only once. It was late summer, 1994, and a telegenic, then-liberal Republican named Mitt Romney had emerged as the perceived anti-Kennedy: common-sensible, business-like, a family man, concerned about social issues, but not obsessed with them. Kennedy was in trouble: he had lingered too long in Washington that summer, trying to push through what legislation he could before the expected national drubbing by the G.O.P. in November. He was late to the field, short on cash, and tied (tied!) with Romney in the polls.
A few lines from Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" started circulating at Democratic Party headquarters in Boston:
"And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm,— A cry of defiance, and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo for evermore!"
Massachusetts political operatives recognized immediately the message contained in the most important word in the poem: Middlesex. Middlesex County is Massachusetts's bellwether, the key to forecasting, running and calling an election there. With 1.5 million people, Middlesex constitutes a fifth of the Massachusetts population. Quite simply, it is where the votes are and those votes are Democratic, not just because it is Massachusetts, but because it is uniquely Middlesex. Just to the north and west of Boston, Middlesex County includes places like eggheady liberal Cambridge, working-class Lowell, and commuting, middle-class Framingham. In other words, it is the Democratic base. It also happens to be the home turf of Martha Coakley, the loser in yesterday's special election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat. A friend asked me last week how I thought the election would go down. "Keep your eye on Middlesex," I said. "If Brown is within 10 points there, it'll be a long night for Coakley." The result in Middlesex last night? Coakley 51%, Brown 47%, not nearly a big enough Coakley win to offset her losses elsewhere.
Yet the result in Middlesex also tells us that Martha Coakley's long night is simply the first of what is likely to be a long, dark year for the Democrats. Yes, Massachusetts (Massachusetts, of all places!) has sent a Republican to the Senate during one of the biggest moments in U.S. legislative history. That should cause alarm for the Dems, to be sure. But if Democrats really want to understand the nature and the extent of the emergency, they need to take a hard look at the tallies from Middlesex. The close result there shows that independents, a growing voting block in Massachusetts, as they are virtually everywhere, broke decisively for Brown. Yet the news is worse than that: the result reveals that the Democratic base has fractured. Coakley racked up her wins mainly in the tony liberal suburbs, but she lost big in places like Ayer, Billerica and Burlington, which are home not only to a lot of independents, but to a different kind of Democrat, one who is a bit more suspicious of big government and somewhat more socially conservative than the party's left wing--one who worries (rightly or wrongly) about a government takeover of their HMO. The alarm now sounding "from every Middlesex village and farm" is this: the Democrats have to win back the independents who put Obama in the White House AND prevent a fracture in their base from becoming a break. If not, then disaster is in the offing for November.
Ted Kennedy saved his seat in 1994 and learned a lesson he never forgot: Don't take voters, especially base voters, for granted. They have a way of reminding you who's boss.
Matt Malone, SJ