BOSTON and WASHINGTON-Toward the end of last year, Boston sports station WEEI was getting daily phone calls from a guy named Scott Brown. They brushed him off. Same story at WTKK, Boston conservative talk radio. "He would call on the hotline and we'd be like, 'Aw, it's Scott Brown again,'" said Tom Shattuck, a producer at the station. "Scott Brown made for bad radio. No one cared about the Senate race."
Shattuck related this story to me in a packed ballroom of sweating and exuberant Brown supporters in Boston minutes before Democrat Martha Coakley called to concede to the Republican state senator in one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory. Coakley, the state's attorney general, watched her 30-point advantage to inherit the late Ted Kennedy's seat evaporate in the space of a month as Brown, from Wrentham, Mass., a town of 11,000, surged to victory by 5 points. Coakley didn't lose because of bad turnout either-for a snowy election day turnout was as high as the 2006 election, when Kennedy won reelection and masses turned out to vote for the state's first black governor, Deval Patrick. Even Kennedy's hometown of Hyannis voted for Brown.
While the Boston sports announcers and talk radio hosts may not have cared about Brown until very recently (along with the rest of the country), he has had supporters for a race like this from the pro-life community since before he entered the state Senate-even though Brown is pro-abortion. He supports Roe v. Wade as the "law of the land," but he opposes both federal funding for abortion and partial-birth abortion. He supports laws regarding parental consent for minors to receive abortions and in 2005 he put forward a "conscientious objector" amendment in the state Senate to protect the religious freedom of hospital workers, which was defeated. He supports same-sex civil unions but opposes same-sex marriage.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI), met Brown seven years ago while he was on the campaign trail. While Mineau's group opposes legal abortion and same-sex civil unions, Mineau told me: "We liked what we saw." From Mineau's perspective, a legislator can't overturn Roe v. Wade, so he supports candidates who will defend the unborn in what ways they can-like banning partial-birth abortion or requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortion. MFI and Mineau never endorsed Brown because of the restrictions involving the group's nonprofit status, but the organization's separate political arm did help Brown.
While Mineau saw potential in Brown in 2003, another Massachusetts pro-life group refused to endorse him seven years ago. Massachusetts Citizens for Life is the oldest pro-life group in the state, formed in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided. The organization has endorsed losing Senate candidates, including Mitt Romney in his 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy, but in 2010 it endorsed a winner: Brown. The organization didn't just endorse him-its political arm made 440,000 phone calls, sent out 175,000 mailers, and ran radio ads, according to the chair of its political action committee, John Rowe.
"The difference in the candidates is stark," Rowe said, defending the organization's support for a pro-abortion candidate as necessary to defeat a more radical abortion advocate in Martha Coakley.
There is a twist. In the Republican primary in December, Brown was up against a self-titled pro-life candidate, lawyer Jack Robinson. However, Robinson created a dilemma for traditional values groups because he supports same-sex marriage. Mineau waved him off as a "political gadfly," saying Robinson changed his positions to suit the race. Massachusetts Citizens for Life didn't get behind Robinson.
So the candidate who was then known principally as the guy who at age 22 posed nude for a Cosmopolitan centerfold and paid his way through law school by modeling-Brown-won the Dec. 8 GOP primary. Martha Coakley won the Democratic primary with the assumption that she would float into final victory. With the Jan. 19 special election just over a month away, she went on vacation, and some of her volunteers said they took a break, too.
Scott Brown was calling radio stations and driving around the state in his now-famous truck asking for votes. On New Year's Day he stood outside Fenway Park, which was hosting its first-ever hockey game, shaking hands. Other conservative activists coalesced behind him, including several Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, which had opposed Republican Dede Scozzafava in a New York special election months earlier because she wasn't conservative enough.
Overall, Brown had made 66 campaign stops while Coakley made 19. Over a week before the election, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, showed Brown up by 1 point. Democrats rushed to protect Coakley, sending millions of dollars for ads and calling in political stars. Coakley jetted down to Washington to raise money from lobbyists, and when she was asked why she went there in the heat of the race, she responded, "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold?"
With national attention swiveling to Massachusetts, the race tightened and more national groups jumped into the fray, especially those on both sides of the healthcare debate. Pro-life groups supported Brown, concerned that the final healthcare bill wouldn't have sufficient abortion restrictions, including Catholic Families for America, Priests for Life, Catholic Vote Action, and the Susan B. Anthony List (even if some of these groups didn't endorse him outright).
Kevin Roberts, executive director for Catholic Families for America, said the organization held back "some of the ammunition" in its efforts on behalf of Brown because of his support of Roe. But he argued that they had a "moral obligation" to support Brown over Coakley. "Some pro-life people might sit on their hands, so they'll just not vote. That's a mistake."
Brown distanced himself from "outside groups," even asking them repeatedly to "stay away," though he didn't single out pro-life groups. "His faith is very private . . . like a typical New Englander. You never talk about politics or religion," Mineau explained. Brown is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
In a debate a week before the election, Coakley suggested she wouldn't vote for healthcare reform if it included the Stupak amendment, which gave the House version tougher restrictions on abortion funding than the Senate version offered. Brown-who in principle supports government-run healthcare as it exists in Massachusetts but opposes a federal plan-stated his support for a ban on federal funding of abortions. At the same time Brown has used Obama's line that he hopes "to reduce the number of abortions."
Mineau isn't turned off by Brown's big tent platform-in fact he wishes there were more candidates like Brown because he thinks they can win in blue states and help the pro-life cause.
"I wish I had 1,000 candidates like him," said Jennifer Nassour, chair of the Massachusetts GOP, standing on a snow-pocked sidewalk in the North End of Boston, a historically Italian neighborhood near wharfs and fish markets. It was four days before the election and she was following Brown down Hanover Street as he greeted deli workers and deliverymen, with Rudy Giuliani at his side. "Hey Jim!" he called out to a man crossing the street-he knew a lot of names even though he wasn't in his hometown. The air, not frigid, still held the wet cold of Boston, and bystanders stood bundled while Brown wore just his business suit, no gloves-he had a lot of hands to shake, even in the heavily liberal city.
"When I first heard he was running, I thought it was laughable," said Coakley volunteer Sandy Coy that day. "We took it for granted."
Off the snowy sidewalks, inside the luxurious Fairmont Copley Hotel in downtown Boston, a ballroom full of Coakley supporters waited for former president Bill Clinton to arrive to deliver a rally speech. Members of the audience complained that they were too warm. "I'm sorry, we've got the AC cranked up as high as it can go," explained an organizer.
Clinton arrived late but lit up the room, speaking extemporaneously even though he said he hadn't slept in days. Coakley followed him and spoke only briefly, looking at notes, pausing at the wrong moments-a government official uncomfortable with being a political candidate. She left out the back of the room without shaking any hands.
That evening on a Boston radio program she referred to former Red Sox great Curt Schilling as a Yankee fan, not a minor slip-up in one of the most baseball-crazy states in the country. The very bad day for Martha Coakley wasn't over yet. She went on another radio program and implied that Catholics-or anyone else with pro-life convictions-shouldn't work in emergency rooms if they aren't willing to dispense the morning-after pill to rape victims. "You can have religious freedom," she said, "but you probably shouldn't work in the emergency room."
Forty percent of Massachusetts' population is Catholic. "I would be willing to bet that that 5 point margin that he won by was at least the pro-life involvement, if not more," Mineau said.
President Obama flew in Sunday to rally Democratic support as another poll emerged showing Brown up by 5 points. Obama won Massachusetts by 26 points in 2008, but he miscalculated the nature of the electorate in 2010, mocking Brown's truck several times in his speech. "Anyone can buy a truck," he said. But that's why voters liked Brown: He was an "anyone," he was a no one.
Election Day, at Coakley's final campaign stop at the Boston Public Library, about a dozen supporters showed up. Brown was inside Boston's Park Plaza Hotel, waiting with his wife Gail Huff and daughters, Ayla, 21, and Arianna, 19, for his party to start.
The Brown party roiled with characters outside the Republican base. Two Democrats in the crowd, who supported Brown but didn't want to be identified at a Republican bash, joked that they were "just there for the salami." One wore a tie with American flags on it: "Can you believe I even have this tie?" he said to me. Among the throng was Mineau, as well as Tea Party volunteers, Brown's buddies from the National Guard where he has served over 30 years, and some members of teachers unions (who also didn't want to give their names and be associated with a Republican).
Coakley conceded by 10 p.m., and then Brown emerged to address a sea of faces: "For [Democrats], it's just the beginning of an election year filled with many, many surprises. There's trouble everywhere and they know it."
On Brown's first visit to a chaotic Capitol Hill two days later, he was met with camera bulbs and bustling reporters, who ladled on questions while Brown took a moment to note, "A lot of you don't know me." He stopped first at the office of someone who knew him before everyone else in the country did: Senate "maverick" John McCain, R-Ariz., who met with Brown months before the election and told him he could win. McCain is a moderate like Brown who may guide the freshman senator-but as the press herded off down the hall behind Brown, McCain said that he should be the one asking Brown for advice. "He won, I lost," he said, smiling.
Brown's campaign-especially his appeal to independent voters-is becoming a blueprint for Republicans to win in November and beyond. And the Massachusetts Family Institute might be a harbinger of where pro-life groups are headed politically: to embrace moderate candidates in blue states who can move their cause forward in some fashion. "It's rocky soil up here in New England," Mineau reflected. "We need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves in this arena."