Lesson One: Tea Partiers Can Help the GOP
Political observers have been unsure whether the tea party movement – the group of dogmatic fiscal conservatives who tend to disdain establishment candidates from either party – will help or hurt the Republican Party. Democrats have hoped that the movement would essentially cripple the right by dividing the loyalties of right-leaning voters between relatively moderate candidates like Florida Senate candidate Charlie Crist and Tea Party darlings like Marco Rubio, who is challenging Crist in state's GOP primary.
But Brown was able to rally Tea Partiers to his cause without adopting their sometimes-harsh rhetoric, which has the potential to scare away swing voters. If other Republicans can replicate his model – and the Tea Partiers are willing to rally behind candidates who don't necessarily stress their priorities on the stump – it could be a recipe for success for the party in the 2010 midterm elections.
Lesson Two: Democrats Have Real Problems with Independents
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans three-to-one in Massachusetts, yet Brown was able to win because independents broke heavily in his favor. President Obama's approval rating among independents has fallen to 40 percent in the latest CBS News poll (PDF), and 64 percent of them say the country is on the wrong track. Two in three, meanwhile, disapprove of the way the Democrat-dominated Congress is handling its job.
If they want to limit their losses in the midterms, Democrats must find some way to win at least some of these independents back. That could be a challenge, because their party is now widely associated with the unpopular government bailouts, as well as federal spending levels that have helped create an anti-incumbent mood. Expect to see Democratic lawmakers ratchet up their rhetoric on issues like Wall Street bonuses in the coming months in an effort to co-opt the populist mantle that has been driving many independents into the waiting arms of the GOP.
Lesson Three: Health Care Reform is a Defining Issue
During his campaign, Brown unapologetically stressed that his election would break the Democratic supermajority in the Senate – and potentially derail the health care bill that has been the centerpiece of President Obama's agenda during his first year. Whether or not the bill ultimately passes – and that's suddenly a very open question – it will undoubtedly be a crucial part of the debate leading up to the midterm elections.
Republicans have been buoyed by polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose the legislation, which some in the GOP have vowed to repeal if it passes and their party retakes power. Democrats have been hoping the bill will grow more popular after passage, turning what looks like a liability into an asset by the time voters go to the polls.
Lesson Four: Democrats now Know What Not to Do
Republicans are already casting what some are calling the "Massachusetts Miracle" as evidence that Democrats are on the ropes going into the midterms. But it would be a mistake to extrapolate too widely from Brown's victory. His opponent, Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley, ran what has been widely seen as a poor campaign, offering herself up as a bland establishment candidate at a time when voters are rejecting the establishment. (She also made an already-infamous gaffe when she wrongly suggested that Republican Red Sox hero Curt Schilling was actually a Yankees fan.) And Massachusetts, despite its reputation, isn't as blue as many people think – just ask former governor Mitt Romney.
While Republican candidates will learn from Brown, Democrats can also look to Coakley's run for hints on what mistakes to avoid – a potentially more valuable lesson. And the news isn't all bad for the Democrats: The GOP remains largely disorganized and lacks a coherent nationwide message, and should the economy pick up by the time the midterms roll around the momentum could very well have swung in the other direction. While the GOP appears likely to take back some seats in both houses of Congress in November, a Republican takeover remains unlikely.