With Tuesday's Republican victory, the Democrats lost their 60-seat Senate supermajority—thus dooming the chances for major health care reform.
Senator-elect Brown's victory was a clear example of the moderating characteristic of election years.
If Democrats choose not to learn from this event and moderate in the months ahead, they will seriously hurt their reelection chances come November.
In a stunning victory Tuesday, largely unknown Republican state senator Scott Brown defeated Democratic state attorney general Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the US Senate seat previously held by the "Lion of the Senate," Edward Kennedy.
Thus, the Democrats have lost their 60-seat Senate supermajority and practically any hope of passing major health care reform legislation this year. With significant differences between the health care bills passed in the House and the Senate (and some House Democrats specifically positing their opposition to the Senate version), there was already a considerable reconciliation process on the docket for the coming weeks. But lacking a filibuster-proof supermajority, that task has become exceedingly more daunting.
Sure, there are a few parliamentary tricks that could be pulled to try to force the reform bill through—such as passing it as a budget reconciliation so it'd require only 51 votes in the Senate (though this would take a long time), or attempting to push the bill through before Brown is seated (highly unlikely—even some Democrats have denounced this option). But such tomfoolery likely only makes the going tougher for Dems come November, and the Dems know it.
As unexpected as a Brown victory would have been just days ago—no one really thought a Republican would occupy a seat held by a Kennedy for 47 years—it's a clear example of the moderating characteristic of election years. We certainly didn't see it playing out this way. Health care reform seemed all but set to pass—major legislation, highly unpopular (and growing more so) with strictly partisan support, signed in an election year? We can find nothing like it in history. So maybe a Republican revolt in Massachusetts is like Newton's third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Aside from the now-dim future of health care reform, it's difficult to project what happens from here. Many will be quick to see the Republican upset (in a state with an all-Democrat delegation—yep, Senator John Kerry and all 10 Representatives) as a repudiation of President Obama, Congress, Democrats, health care reform, Yankee's fans, all of those things together, or none of them. But we can't know what was in the hearts of individual MA voters—and their actions certainly can't be conflated to 435 House and at least 36 Senate elections this November. Also, despite the previously one-sided congressional delegation and assumptions to the contrary, MA isn't the bluest of blue states—Mitt Romney (R) was the governor just a couple years ago, and there are actually more registered Independents than Democrats.
Should Democrats take a lesson from Tuesday's contest, they will moderate in the months ahead, doing what they can to avoid passing anything material. This relative inactivity is just the sort of status quo stocks favor. And though Democrats likely inevitably lose some seats in the midterm elections (the president's party loses, on average, 25 House and 2 to 3 Senate seats), such moderation could stem the bloodletting. However, if they don't heed the warning signs of Tuesday's election and keep pushing for major legislation, it could provide an additional headwind for stocks. And it will be downright disastrous for the Dems come November.