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Mark Shields: Special Elections Can Really Be Special

Last week's Senate election in Massachusetts wasn't the first to have enormous consequences

Special elections are politically freaky. They are hostage to the whim of unpredictable voter turnout on some random date. At least, that’s how some quivering Democrats, still reeling from the jolt of Republican Scott Brown’s smashing victory in the special Massachusetts Senate election, are consoling themselves. Not to be mean, but let’s look at the history books.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

On the night of Nov. 5, 1991, Democrat Harris Wofford, after trailing former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh by 40 percent in the polls, won the special election to replace Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., who had died in a plane crash.

To a cheering crowd of supporters, Wofford explained what his campaign victory meant: “Let the word go forth form this place on the Delaware to our nation’s capital on the banks of the Potomac: ‘We want national health insurance.’”

During his 1991 effort, Wofford had formulated the winning argument, “If criminals have the right to a lawyer, I think working Americans should have the right to a doctor.”

The Wofford campaign, led by James Carville and Paul Begala (who would go from there to central roles in Bill Clinton’s winning presidential campaign) put health care squarely on the national agenda. In fact, in Clinton’s Little Rock, Ark., headquarters, Carville — to remind campaign workers what the campaign was entirely about — had a sign that read: “Change vs. More of the Same,” “The Economy, Stupid” and “Don’t Forget Health Care.”

Campaign themes do often become presidential initiatives, as health-care reform did in Clinton’s first White House term. The failure of the new Democratic administration to even get a floor vote on Clinton’s health-care plan in either the House or Senate, both controlled by his own party, contributed to the Democrats losing their House majority in 1994. Special elections often do have enormous consequences.

Nineteen years later, Brown’s special-election Senate victory in Massachusetts could be the bookend to Wofford’s 1991 Pennsylvania upset win. Where Pennsylvania voters then pushed the issue and idea of health care to national attention, Massachusetts voters now may well have sunk the first national health-care reform plan ever to pass both houses of Congress.

It’s both silly and unrealistic to propose, as some health-care supporters have, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ask her House colleagues to pass the Senate bill. For House Democrats, to vote for the Senate bill with its widely publicized special deals, including the Louisiana Purchase to secure the vote of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and the Nebraska Auction to win the backing of Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., would be political suicide.

Republican managers are already salivating over the prospects of running a campaign against any House Democrat who voted to ratify and justify those rightly criticized Senate deals — so politically objectionable that Nelson publicly asked that Nebraska’s special treatment be dropped from the legislation.

Massachusetts was a major, important victory for Republicans and a major, important defeat for Democrats. Unwilling to face that reality, some White House types argue that “local issues” were decisive in Massachusetts. Sorry, but President Barack Obama’s personal campaigning and the millions spent by the national party committees and affiliated groups effectively nationalized the Massachusetts race.

The easy and wrong way out for losing Democrats is to blame the candidate — failed nominee Martha Coakley. Blaming the losing candidate can sometimes shift blame. But it also ignores the distinct likelihood that voters may instead have found Our Party’s record, ideas or values irrelevant, clueless or objectionable.

Coakley will not be on the ballot next fall in California, Delaware, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the Democratic candidates who will be are a lot more nervous today, after Brown’s upset win, than they were before Tuesday.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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