The comparison of the long-shot campaigns of Scott Brown and Christine O’Donnell frequently draws the objection that Brown was viewed as a serious and moderate candidate, whereas O’Donnell is viewed as a non-serious extremist.

As someone who followed the Brown campaign closely, I can tell you that this perception is wrong as to Brown.

Once they woke up from their December 2009 slumbers, the Martha Coakley campaign, Democratic Party operatives, and the left-wing blogosphere went after Brown just as viciously as Castle and Coons supporters went and are going after O’Donnell. 

Brown was treated much as O’Donnell is being treated now, as a joke, unqualified, likely racist, homophobic, and a host of other epithets.

The current view of Brown, which has taken hold over the past 9 months, has replaced the reality of what went on in January 2010.

Sorry to burst your memory bubbles, folks, but here are some facts about how Scott Brown was treated:
  • Brown’s appearance almost completely nude in Cosmopolitan magazine while in law school was greeted with widespread mockery, and his nomination initially was viewed as a joke.  The image below was plastered all over the place.  One prominent left-wing blogger dubbed Brown “Senator Playmate.”

  • The Massachusetts Democratic Party circulated a mailer accusing Brown of wanting to deny medical care to rape victims (which accusation also was the subject of television advertising, see below).

  • Brown was accused of being a “Birther.”
  • Brown was accused of supporting someone in a crowd who yelled about Coakley “shove a curling iron up HER butt.”
  • Brown was accused of supporting a “second revolution.”
  • Democrats accused Brown “of being a “far-right” politician backed by “right-wing radicals” by virtue of his ties to the conservative tea party movement.”
  • John Kerry accused Brown supporters of being “Swift Boaters” and Chris Dodd claimed Coakley was “being attacked by tea partiers and right-wing radicals.” .
  • Chuck Schumer circulated a fundraising e-mail calling Brown a “far-right tea-bagger.”

Martha Coakley ran television advertisements (screen shot below) playing up the rape accusation as well as tying Brown to George Bush.

Here is how Keith Olbermann summed up the catalog of Democratic Party attacks on Brown as a fringe extremist (substitute O’Donnell for Brown, and the resemblence to current attacks on O’Donnell is uncanny):


Scott Brown came to be viewed as moderate, but not because he was treated as moderate by the Democrats or the media which breathlessly reported each accusation.  Only after the statewide debate in which Brown coined the now-famous “It’s the People’s Seat” line did many pundits and others jump on the bandwagon.

The dismal polling for Brown was a trailing indicator, which did not pick up what was happening on the ground.  On January 4, 2010, just two weeks out from the election, a Boston Globe / University of New Hampshire poll found Brown down by 15 points.  On January 5, 2010, numbers “guru” Nate Silver predicted that Brown had little chance:

Rasmussen is supposed to have a poll out tomorrow (Tuesday) on the Massachusetts Senate Special Election, which will take place on the 19th. There’s been some speculation, mostly from Republican blogs but also from some Democratic analysts, that the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, might have a chance, which would potentially wreck the Democrats’ chances to pass health care reform

I’ll be curious to see what Rasmussen and the other pollsters (PPP? Suffolk?) have to say, and bears remembering that special elections are highly unpredictable affairs. But I’d be somewhat surprised if the election turns out to be especially competitive.

It was not until the Rasmussen poll came out showing Brown down by 9 among likely voters but down only by 2 among “definite” voters that people began to think a Brown victory even was possible.

It was the surprise of the Brown victory which led Democrats to fine-tune the messaging and create the strategy of crazy, whereby Republicans, particularly those backed by the Tea Party (like Brown) would be portrayed as extremists. 

The lesson learned by Democrats was that Brown was not attacked early enough to form an extremist and crazy image in the public mind.  As Dave Weigel explained at the time:

A reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress who asked Brown uncomfortable questions only arrived on the trail 24 hours before the election, too late for videos of Brown trying to explain, for example, a vote against financial assistance for Red Cross workers assisting in post-9/11 efforts, to have any impact. A video of the viral curling iron” story backfiring on Brown as a supporter yelled a crude remark about Coakley also appeared too close to the election, after the momentum was sealed.

Sure, no two races are identical, and Brown had much in his background — such as military service and a daughter who was an American Idol star — which O’Donnell does not have.  And Brown did not have to endure the types of attacks from his own party establishment as has O’Donnell.

But the narrative of Scott Brown being treated as a serious mainstream candidate by the Democrats and the media is not accurate. 

O’Donnell has a steeper climb, because so much damage has been done by fellow Republicans, and the Democrats are not asleep at the wheel this time. 

The race will turn on whether in the next 6 weeks O’Donnell can put her new-found campaign treasure to work redefining herself and refocusing the campaign on issues and Chris Coons’ history of tax increases and budget deficits.  Just as Brown was the 41st Vote — nationalizing the campaign — so too O’Donnell must nationalize the campaign around the issues.

O’Donnell’s appearance on Hannity last night was a good first step.  O’Donnell will not be treated fairly by the national mainstream media no matter what she does, so she is better off sticking to local and state media to get her issues-oriented message across.  This will raise the cackles of those who want to take her down, but why should she care about them anyway?

My point is not that history repeats itself in identical form, but that in an emotional electoral season in which Republicans are united, independents are moving towards Republicans, and even Democrats have doubts, someone on the good side of the wave can make up ground very quickly.

There is a televised debate on October 13.  Will that be O’Donnell’s “It’s the People’s Seat” moment?  Will that be the moment when everyone says what now seems impossible is possible?

Does O’Donnell face an uphill fight at this point?  Yes.  Is it over? No. 

Related Posts:
Please Ignore History and Give Up On Delaware
Another Case Study In Media Bias (Delaware Edition)
Memo to the Right: “The Lombardi Rule” Is In Effect

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