Missing messages in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Scott Brown votes in election.

For those of you whose spouse didn’t force them to watch MSNBC all night last night, the big news is that somehow the unthinkable happened: Republican Scott Brown (pictured, right) won the Senate seat held, until his recent death, by Democratic Ted Kennedy. Until a couple of days ago, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley was considered a shoo-in. It’s not that Republicans haven’t won state-wide office in Massachusetts, it’s just that they haven’t had a Republican senator in many moons.

I’m sure everyone will be spinning what this election means for political parties, political movements and President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. I didn’t even know about this race until last week when someone sent in a Washington Times story, a blog post really, about how Coakley was trying to make an issue out of Brown’s support for conscience protections. Here she is in an interview with a Massachusetts radio talk show host:

Ken Pittman: In the emergency room you still have your religious freedom.

Martha Coakley: (…uh, eh…um…) The law says that people are allowed to have that. You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.

The story was huge in the Catholic, pro-life and conservative blogospheres, where her views went over like a lead balloon. But it didn’t really get much mainstream media coverage. Both Coakley and Brown support legalized abortion, for what it’s worth, although Brown has a more favorable view of restrictions on abortion. Massachusetts is the second-most Catholic state in the union with 44 percent of the population.

It’s my own view that Brown owes his victory more to voters concerned about government growth than voters concerned about social issues, but it was surprising how little religion was discussed by the national media covering this race. Or, as Chris Matthews said the other night on MSNBC (via NewsBusters):

CHRIS MATTHEWS: But this election’s interesting. I don’t even know what religion — religion seems to play no role in this election, which is so unique in Massachusetts. Brown is a Protestant. Nobody’s even mentioned it — I guess I just did. And Coakley’s I guess a Catholic, although I don’t think that she sort of squares away that way in terms of her politics. So I mean it’s just so interesting: it’s so post-tribal.

It is interesting that a Protestant would win a Senate seat in Massachusetts. He’s a member of a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. There’s no doubt that Brown’s messages about government and the economy resonated with most of yesterday’s voters. And the media did cover that, some more reluctantly than others. But I didn’t see any coverage about how the two candidates’ views on social issues played with voters, much less what those views were.

I did come across this other article, which I’m positive did not seem so spectacularly wrong when it first ran, that dealt a little bit with the issue. It was published in mid-December in the Boston Phoenix and was headlined:

Even GOP insiders don’t expect Scott Brown to beat Martha Coakley. But they care how he loses.

Reporter David Bernstein refers to Coakley’s imminent victory as a “pre-ordained drubbing” and suggests that Brown was running a “hopeless” race only to position himself better for a future run for governor. He adds that Republicans “harbor no illusions” about whether he’ll lose or not. This is not his fault. Nobody expected Brown to win a month ago. Anyway, he describes Brown thusly:

Throughout his political career, Brown has been considered a staunch conservative. His first race for the State Senate, in 2004, was defined largely by the issue of same-sex marriage, which Brown opposed. He is extremely popular among the conservative base of the state party, say insiders.

That’s worrisome to those in the wing of the state GOP — personified by gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker — who believe the party needs moderate candidates who focus on job creation and fiscal responsibility. They want to downplay social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and to distance themselves from the hard-line rhetoric of the Tea Party movement.

On the other hand, the article says that his more conservative opponents have referred to him as a Republican in name only.

Brown is the new Republican Senator from Massachusetts. But he won by uniting a coalition that we’re still learning about. It’s my sense that his win is related to the other Republican victories last year, sure, but also related to that huge outpouring of public concern seen at town halls and Tea Party protests. Brown didn’t mention the word “Republican” once in his victory speech. He did mention the word “independent” quite a bit.

This independent movement is emerging, we don’t exactly know what’s fueling it. We know that the voters supporting it are concerned about federal power as it relates to economic issues. And we know that social concerns aren’t the driving force. But does that mean that social concerns aren’t important to them at all? Probably not. And does religion play a role in shaping the outlook of these people? How? It would be great to know and hopefully the media will begin to actually cover the movement a bit better than they’ve done in the last year.

Please do let us know if you see any good religion coverage of this race and what it means in Massachusetts or the country at large.

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  • Tim Terhune

    Hi Mollie -

    Excellent writeup.

    A Massachusetts voter here (and Scott Brown supporter):
    just want to let you know that you got his opponents name
    wrong, it’s “Martha”, not “Marcia”.

    Just like the
    Red Sox winning the World Series – I never thought I’d
    live to see this day!

    - Tim

  • Chris

    Trivia, I know, but I think that the correct term in the first paragraph is “shoo-in”. Just as you would say, “Shoo! Shoo!” to a pigeon sitting on the roof of your car. :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    It is shoo-in.

    Unless MZ is saying that journalists are going to throw shoes at this new senator, which is a possibility.

    (cue: rim shot and cymbal splash)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I wish there’d be more stories about conscience protections, too. But I wish that journalists would ask pointed questions of proponents – for example, is this the sort of thing they actually want?



  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Thanks Tim!

  • Peter

    It is interesting that a Protestant would win a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

    Why? They elected a Mormon to be governor. And their current governor is a Presbyterian. Massachusetts Catholics aren’t like Indiana Catholics.

    My guess religion didn’t come up because it isn’t an issue. The Tea Pariters aren’t interested in social issues and Brown, despite his denials, is a Tea Party candidate in most ways.

  • Peggy

    The religion angle I found not too surprising was that Coakley is a strong pro-abortion Catholic. Although Brown’s not a strong pro-lifer, as you say, he supports a good many restrictions on abortion. He also opposes same-sex marriage. It always seems that it takes a Protestant to stand more strongly for beliefs that the Catholic Church holds dear and progressive Catholic pols spit on.

    Boston is the birth place of Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic movement which was founded in the wake of the priest abuse revelations, but has moved toward Church “reform” and more lay control and is rather socially progressive.

    I wonder about Mass Catholics and others finally feeling free of the hold of the Kennedys. Did the Catholics vote for Kennedy all those decades out of some Catholic loyalty?

  • Matt

    Just for context, the Christian Reformed Church (Brown’s denomination) comprises evangelicals of the Dutch Reformed tradition. It is probably best known for its association with Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Thanks, Tim — I think Rep. Patrick Kennedy got to me on the Marcia/Martha front (http://hotlineoncall.nationaljournal.com/archives/2010/01/after_obama_ral.php)

    And thanks, Chris. Unfortunately I have no excuse about the shoe-in/shoo-in mess up.

  • Sally

    I live in Massachusetts; and it is indeed true that there is seldom any coverage of local candidates’ religious views because they are usually non-issues.

    For example, it is a given that to be elected to any position above dog catcher in Mass, you must be pro-choice. Mitt Romney was in fact a pro-choice Republican when he ran for Governor; which I think hurt him when he ran for president as a pro-lifer as he was labeled a flip-flopper on that issue. I would guess that both Romney and now Brown are at heart pro-lifers but pragmatically run as pro-choice; and Mass. pro-life voters know that there will be no chance of overturning laws permitting abortion at the state level so it doesn’t figure into things as a major issue.

    Brown did oppose same-sex marriage, but supports a civil union status that would provide same-sex couples with the legal rights of marriage. While he has been castigated by some for being “bigoted,” his stance is pretty much identical to President Obama, who still enjoys near-saintly status around here. Once again, since Mass. already has same-sex marriage, it isn’t a big issue any more at the state level. Our candidates tend to be either pro-choice, no restrictions at all (like Coakley, who is endorsed by Emily’s List) or pro-choice with some restrictions (like Brown).

    Mass. Catholics are for the most part cultural Christmas-and-Easter Catholics rather than orthodox go-to-confession Catholics. The Irish part of Irish-Catholic trumps the actual Catholicism; hence the Kennedys were popular because they were Boston Irish. The more observant Catholics in my area are mostly immigrants whom I don’t think are terribly engaged politically. The few orthodox Catholics are strongly pro-life, but since we never have any pro-life candidates it doesn’t come up as a huge issue.

    Even socially conservative Christians (Catholic, evangelical, etc.) tend to be a lot more liberal in this state than in other parts of the country. I belong to a theologically conservative evangelical church but know quite a few who voted for Obama, which would probably be unthinkable in, say, South Carolina.

    Coakley did anger many with her Catholics-in-emergency-rooms remark, but I would say even more were displeased at the fact that her ads blatantly misrepresented Brown’s support of conscience clauses as “denial of medical care to rape victims.” As one (non-religious) friend of mine put it, “Does she think we’re stupid? Does she really think that we are going to believe that?”

    Coakley was undone by the fact that she ran a terrible campaign AND voter dissatisfaction with three years of Governor Deval Patrick, and the fact that Obama has so far not delivered very much of the hope and change he promised — not by any seismic shift towards conservatism in general here in the Bay State. Many Democrats I know voted for Brown solely to send a message to Washington — i.e., we voted you in and we can easily vote you out, so you better start delivering.

    The health-care reform angle was also much less of an issue in Mass, because we already have MassHealth. I really think it was more of a warning shot across the Democratic bow, so to speak, than anything else.

  • Dave

    Interesting journalism-philosophy point. In a story like this, which is primarily political in both the event (election) and the reasons for it, is the reporter obligated to dig out a religious angle if none appears on the surface?

    I understand how the thought of a Massachusetts election with no religion angle might boggle the minds of those familiar with the Bay State but is there a journalitic obligation to find one?

  • John Willard


    I would argue that almost everyone in America has strong feelings, one way or another, about religion, and that those feelings demand more extensive media coverage. Not that ever story has to become a religion article regardless of intent, but that journalists should become used to referencing religion and religious issues as a part of regular stories the same way they deal with class, ethnicity, gender, and region

  • Martha

    It would appear that, apart from anything else to do with religion or ‘big government’, Martha Coakley failed at the most basic level of practical politics – canvassing during an election:


    “Coakley bristles at the suggestion that, with so little time left, in an election with such high stakes, she is being too passive.

    “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?’’ she fires back, in an apparent reference to a Brown online video of him doing just that.”

    Right about there, I submit, she killed her campaign stone-dead. Any politico worth his or her salt knows that yes, shaking hands and baby-kissing and turning up at the opening of an envelope (so long as it’s a local envelope and you can somehow wangle your name, or your party at least, into having donated/provided/persuaded the envelope to be there) is absolutely essential, no matter how much you think you’re leading, or how many votes you can rely on as dead certanties.

    We have an ex-Taoiseach who was an absolute genius at this; no matter where, no matter when, no matter what the big public state issues were, he made certain first and foremost to wear out shoe-letter canvassing in his local constituency – and it paid off.

    Maybe if she’d done the ‘standing outside the church after twelve o’clock Mass on Sunday’ bit, she might have gotten the seat?

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I read it too late to catch the “shoo-in,” but… “thusly?” Oh, Mollie. You’re too good for that.

    I understand how the thought of a Massachusetts election with no religion angle might boggle the minds of those familiar with the Bay State but is there a journalistic obligation to find one?

    I think there is. The thing that this blog emphasizes, that journalists fail to realize, is that a person’s religion affects everything he does, directly or indirectly. In an election, everyone who votes has some sort of religious perspective influencing his vote. In some elections it may be more overt than others, but it’s always there.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I think the religion-angle question — does there have to be one? — is interesting in this case.

    In part, this is linked to the whole secular nature of the Tea Party phenomenon.

    Only, that leads us to a major story that MZ notes: How are these new activists getting along with that other major player in the modern GOP arena, which would be the Religious Right?

    Oh, and has anyone seen any stats on how our Four Kinds Of Catholic Voters split in this election?

    Just asking. So I guess the stories are in there somewhere.

  • Martha

    “Oh, and has anyone seen any stats on how our Four Kinds Of Catholic Voters split in this election?”

    Yes, that would be interesting. Or is there any kind of breakdown of the voting results? Did Ms. Coakley lose the Irish/Catholic votes, or did Mr. Brown pick up extra votes and if so, from where?

  • dalea

    There is a post at DKos that breaks down the numbers. From this I suspect we can begin to see the religious aspects.


    Of the people who voted for Obama, 44% either voted for Brown or did not vote. The turnout was most depressed in working class areas, which are usually Catholic and African American. It appears that lunch bucket Democrats, who were Hillary’s strong supporters, stayed home or voted Brown.

    It also appears that they wanted to send a message to DC and the Democratic Party:


  • Peggy

    Rassmussen found a funding source and did some limited exit polling himself. It may not answer all the religion questions, but it’s all we’ve got:


    Plus this follow-up in which they found that Mass voters were about evenly split about the tea party phenomenon.

  • Dave

    John, no argument, but the wide net you cast doesn’t deal with whether this religious point is germane to this article.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I disagree. I think “thusly” is a great word to use. For humorous effect, at least.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Romney won and Brown won because they each gave a tip of the hat to pro-life concerns during their respective campaigns. Not reported in the media is how all Dem candidates are hard-core, stooges for Planned Parenthood and support just about anything the pro-”choicers” even whisper that they want.
    Romney opposed this strait-jacket abortion mentality during the last debate of his campaign. He came out in support of parental notification in abortion cases involving minors. The Dem candidate did the usual Dem bowing and scraping to abortion interests and supported behind-the-backs of parents abortions. I can still remember our parishoners buzz over the fact and could feel the swing to Romney by Catholic pro-lifers—and he won.(He had been losing ground).
    Everytime I hear the media talking heads talk about Brown and abortion, they call him “pro-choice.” But he has come out AGAINST federal funding of abortion, AGAINST partial-birth abortion, and FOR parental notification (as well as FOR traditional marriage). In addition he tried to get a law protecting the consciences of pro-life health care workers passed. These weren’t hidden–in fact Coakley spent millions for ads trying to make his pro-life stands mean he was pro-rape (Some of the most rotten, lieing ads I’ve seen in years.)
    Compared to most hide-bound pro-abortion liberal Dems-Republicans like Romney and Brown are refreshingly willing to take pro-life stands on specific situations–but try to find that angle in the media.

  • Martha

    So it looks like Brown picked up a small but important wedge of Democrat voters – it would indeed be interesting to see if they fit into one of the “Four types of Catholics” votes.

    So, anyone got any political gossip? I’m wondering how the internal party recriminations are going to shake out after this – if it’s anything like my own green little island, heads will roll amongst a bloodbath of fault-finding and blame-shifting.

    Was Coakley a local candidate? Did she have a rival that she beat, and whose team would then have been lukewarm in their support for her campaign? (Shock, horror: internal faction fighting has torpedoed many a campaign before now, rather than anything the political rival did or did not do)? Was she a choice by the central party rather than the people on the ground, or did she just – as would seem likely from that quote about shaking hands in the cold outside a sports stadium – ignore advice about the necessary door-to-door footslogging and think she would be elected on being a statewoman? I’ve seen the results of that over here as well, and if Irish-American voters are anything like Irish voters, neglecting parish pump politics is the kiss of death :-)

  • dalea

    Coakley represents western MA, she lives there. The bulk of the population is in the eastern part of the state. She won a primary against 2 popular figures from the eastern area who split that vote. There is a lot of discussion, including gossip at DKos:


  • Peter

    My guess is Brown’s failure to talk about religion was intentional. He didn’t want to be associated with religious conservatives in Mass. and knew his positions on abortion and gays were already a liability.

    He now needs to run for reelection in 2012. It will be interesting to see whether he’s going to indulge Christian conservatives or even appear with Tea Party activists now that he’s Sen. Tea Party. He may be the most conservative he’ll ever be, slowly moving to the Snowe segment of the Senate and not the Coburn corner.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Martha– I live in Ma. She was the candidate of the Dem Party after a hard-fought primary in that party. However, she was the choice of the party leaders.
    Peter–Brown’s position on gay rights and abortion were not “already” a liability–they were a plus but he didn’t want to lose that plus by being the “social issues” candidate and become a constant liberal media attack target.
    Remember that here in the people’s leftist Dem dictatorship (kept in a liberal strait-jacket by a state Supreme Court corrupted by its lust for power and a legislature that is controlled lock, stock, and barrel by radical leftist power groups both of which corruptly worked together to keep the people from voting on gay marriage).
    Unfettered by the courts, the radical legislature, and the media being caught off guard–Brown’s win was a more clear reflection of how this “blue” state really believes.

  • Julia

    Matthews said:

    So I mean it’s just so interesting: it’s so post-tribal.

    Catholics come in all kinds of nationalities and ethnicities. So, it’s interesting that Matthews, who worked for Tip O’Neill as a young man, views Catholicism as “tribal”. He’s equating Catholicism with Irishness, not belief or practice.

    That would explain a lot about how many Catholic politicians feel comfortable being pro-choice. It would be interesting to inquire into how many of the Catholic politicians who are strongly pro-choice are of Irish backgrounds. That would seem to apply to Italian-Americans, as well, since both nations are hugely Catholic.

    Kerry – father claimed to be Irish.
    Kennedys – Irish.
    Pelosi – Italian from Maryland.

    It would explain why these folks “feel” Catholic whether they believe any of its teachings or not.

  • Cathy

    Martha Coakley most definitely is not from Western MA, she lives in Medfird, Middlesex County, right next to Boston. She was the Middlesex County DA and because Middlesex isthe most populous county, this was supposed to give her an edge–but she did not win it by enough to make up for her losses in Central MA, Essex County and the Cape. Interestingly, Hyannis, home of the Kennedy compound went for Brown by 11%.
    As for the religion angle, I’d say Sally nailed it. This race did not have a significant religious component. As a conservative Catholic Republican born in MA, I know Romney and Brown are as close to life issues as I’m likely to get. It is possible I would vote for a pro-life Dem in MA, but it won’t happen, they just are not there–even Ray Flynn did not seek higher office. The worst damage Ted Kennedy did was to give cover to Catholic Democrats with the “personnally opposed” BS. Most Catholic voters in MA (and elsewhere) completly buy that line.

  • Cathy

    Sorry! That would be Medford, MA (or Meffa, as some might say….). And in terms of retail politics and her lack of skills, it says something that I did not know that until Monday, and that’s the next town over from me. Nor did I know she was married.

  • Martha

    Deacon John, Cathy, thanks for the info and thanks to dalea as well.

    Sounds a small bit like the infighting amongst the Fianna Fáil party in my own county (equivalent to a state): division between the western and eastern parts, ferocious defence of turf (there have been quite vicious rows about candidates straying outside invisible but tacitly understood boundaries to canvass in villages regarded as ‘belonging’ to another candidate in the same party) and lack of enthusiasm, to put it charitably, to support the victorious rival in the main election.

    As a whole, Irish politics has also seen the favourite of the party leadership being ‘parachuted in’ to run for what is considered a safe seat and so putting the noses of the locals out of joint, who then stand back and let that candidate flounder and fail to teach the leadership a lesson.

    Also, the electorate do like to punish politicians who seem to be getting above themselves (thinking they’re being elected to the national government to exercise statesmanship and make history, instead of ensuring that the proper slicing of government pork goes on for the constituency), or to send a lesson to the party in government that they’re losing the run of themselves.

    Seems like some or all of these factors could be in play in Massachusetts?

    I have to say, I’ve been amused by the reaction of some in the media to the win by Brown; I pricked up my ears at the mention of “ex-nude model” in Keith Olbermann’s evaluation of him as “In short, in Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” (Imagine my disappointment when the photographic evidence of this nude modelling turned out to be a photoshoot for “Cosmopolitian” back in 1982!) ;-)

    Or James Carroll telling us that the reason Coakley lost was pure misogyny:


    “When it comes to positions of real power, no women need apply. Martha Coakley was croaked by an electorate that could not get past her gender.”

    Um – if it was all down to misogyny, how was it that Coakley got elected to anything at all previously? If the votes of Massachusetts think women should stick to the cooking and cleaning?

    I have been fascinated to see how the Democrats lost a Kennedy seat, but then again – has anyone considered that the seat may have been, in the definition of Chris Matthews – tribal? Over here, politicians have switched parties and kept votes, because the voters were electing the man/woman on grounds of personal liking/loyalty/ability to deliver the goods and not the party affiliation. So perhaps the voters would have elected a Kennedy but with none running, they made up their own minds as to which candidate they preferred?

  • dalea

    Martha, DKos had a little exercise in map comparing. Brown did very well in all the areas where Hillary Clinton beat Barak Obama in the 2008 primary. Coakley did well in Obama’s areas. Looks like the defectors were Hillary’s working class supporters, a group Obama does not have many ties with.

  • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com Tony

    I think Martha (Erin go bragh!) has the best insight: Marcia Coakley lost because she took victory for granted, and for that reason failed to do things that she should have learned in Electioneering 101 — Kiss the babies, shake the hands, meet and greet everyone from the mayor to the local bag-lady, and for goodness’ sake be careful not to p*** off a swing bloc with an ill-considered statement. She left everything on the table, and ought not to be surprised that Scott Brown swept it up. He worked for the seat; she didn’t.

    One thing that needs to be considered is that a lot of people are pro-choice as a valid option for “other people”; for them, it’s wrong but not evil enough to illegalize. Of course I disagree vehemently, but the observation sets up my next point: The abortion machine has gotten as far as it has mostly on the laissez-faire attitude of these people. However, their willingness to tolerate it as a choice for others doesn’t translate into a willingness to subsidize it with public funding or to force those who abhor it into participating against their will. Coakley’s splutter that pro-lifer healthworkers should “get out” was remarkably insensitive, the kind of comment only someone who equates pragmatic politics with cause advocacy can make.

    That James Carroll should play the “gender card” doesn’t surprise me. In many ways, his thinking was trapped in amber during the late ’60s, and can’t move beyond quasi-Marxist pseudodialectics. I wonder how all the women who voted against Coakley and for Brown feel about their “misogyny”? (Of course, since his kind of liberal deals mostly in freshly-painted stereotypes, I’m sure he wrote them off as voting for Brown because “he’s a hunk”.)

    One last thought: While I’m far from putting my trust in Brown for the White House, his victory reminded me of another against-all-odds win, by a little gray haberdasher from Missouri in 1948, holding up a newspaper that got the winner wrong: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.