Has Scott Brown turned out to be a blessing in disguise for congressional Democrats?

April 13, 2010

When Scott Brown scored his upset victory in January's special election to fill Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, panicked Democratic Party insiders assumed the sky was falling. Brown's election as the newest senator from Massachusetts meant that the Democrats had lost their razor-thin 60-vote majority to counter GOP filibuster threats on major legislation.

What's more, the symbolism couldn't have looked worse for Democrats: Here was the seat held by the Senate's late liberal lion, in one of the bluest states on the electoral map, falling into the Republican column. Activists from the small-government Tea Party movement had flooded the state with volunteers to get out the vote and claim this critical Senate seat as a prize pick-up for the anti-Democratic, anti-Obama insurgency. Election watchers even started talking about the "Scott Brown effect," as polling started to look grim for other established liberal lawmakers from traditionally deep blue states, like California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

But barely three months into his tenure, Brown has fallen out of favor with his onetime Tea Party backers, and is starting to looking like something of a silver lining for Democrats. In a no-less symbolic moment, Brown declined an invitation to appear at a Tea Party rally in Boston this week headlined by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Brown cited pressing legislative business as the reason for his no-show--but his fledgling legislative record is precisely what has conservative activists so angry at him. On Monday, he furnished a critical swing vote to tamp down a threatened Republican filibuster on a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits. And in his first major break with conservative activists, he voted for a Democratic jobs bill in February, earning him thousands of outraged comments on his Facebook page from Tea Party backers who felt betrayed by the senator they had worked so hard to help elect. Both votes have also helped Senate Democrats make the case that they are hammering together bipartisan support on important legislation — something that's been an elusive goal in dealing with the filibuster-happy GOP Senate minority.

Even on health care reform — the issue that Brown's election was supposed to help derail — the big GOP turnaround in Massachusetts created a certain "scared straight" effect among key Democratic congressional leaders. In order to stem the rising tide of conservative discontent, Democrats simply chose to bear down and get the health care legislation passed. And the loss of the 60-vote majority also simplified the decision-making for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Senate Democrats going forward. Being forced to adopt the budget-driven tactic of reconciliation to win approval on a 50-plus majority was oddly liberating for Senate leaders who had sweated out no end of unsavory deals to get wavering centrist lawmakers on board for the initial Senate health care vote last December.

"If you already paid the bill, you may as well enjoy the meal," is how one Democratic operative describes the thinking of senior Democrats after the Brown upset.
As for Brown, his votes supporting Democratic initiatives are just part of his coming to full awareness of what it means to serve as a GOP senator representing a heavily Democratic state. The operative says: "It's Brown's yearning for re-election that's benefited Democrats. His votes are moving an agenda forward but have added more suspicion amongst Tea Partiers that they can't trust Republicans." And that creates an additional bind for Brown as he serves out the remainder of his term. "After all [Brown's] bluster during the campaign, his votes now come off as more calculated than principled. That will turn off moderates — who are even more critical after Brown took all the energy out of the base that got him elected."