With polls showing a near-photo finish to the Massachusetts Senate special election, here are some lessons that Democrats may want to draw from the experience of Martha Coakley. By way of predictions, I'm still reasonable certain that Coakley will win comfortably. But not comfortably enough....
1. Nothing at all. The race is unique. A six-week general election sprint, a winter election day that people aren't used to, the burden of replacing Sen. Ted Kennedy, a generally poor atmosphere for Democrats -- it's hard to transfer any lessons from this particular race to any other. It was easy for Scott Brown to rack up support while no one paid attention to the race.
2. As both Markos Moutlisas and Chuck Todd (strange bedfellows....ew...bad image) have noted, Brown has shown flashes of Paul Hackett-like populism. Hackett, you'll recall, was an Iraq veteran who almost beat Republican Jean Schmidt for an open House seat in Ohio in 2005. His candidacy was aided by the burgeoning Democratic netroots, and his close showing was in part the result of his campaign's solid field organizing -- new for that district at the time. What made Hackett's candidacy particularly alluring for Democrats was that the guy didn't moderate his positions for the Republican district. He ran as a Democrat, and a liberal one at that, against the Patriot Act, against President Bush's tax cuts -- and he still came close to winning. Brown has employed some solid Net-based organizing techniques, and he's taken a hard turn to the right on national security issues. Moderates, so far, haven't been scared off. We will see if Coakley's last minute attempt to paint Brown as an anti-abortion extremist works. There will be, in any event, more right-wing Hacketts and fewer right-wing Mark Kirks this year.
3. Democrats need a better answer on national security. During last night's candidate debate, Brown, demagogically, but effectively, questioned Coakley, a tough attorney general, about the administration's decision to try KSM in a federal court. Closing GTMO is now a losing issue, and Americans disagree with the administration's decision to try some terrorists inside the country. Combined with the fallout over the Christmas Day bomber and a general sense that the White House is still working its way through the rhetoric of a national security strategy, Democrats need to know that they're going to be challenged on this, and they'd be wise to come up with an effective answer. BTW: Scott Brown is an Army lawyer...so he has specific credentials that bolster his particular salvo.
4. Take nothing for granted. This one sounds obvious, but Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats. That means that, when it comes to base turnout, Democrats cannot take anything for granted. They can't assume a baseline level of support. They're going to have to work harder than they currently anticipate. Republican grassroots and grasstops groups, talk radio bloviations, ads from the America's Future Fund to the Tea Partiers to the who knows who will flood states with early money, which will almost certainty boost GOP candidate visibility early on. Democrats have two responses to this: they can either husband their resources until the end of the campaign, or they can meet fire with fire early on. There are problems with each approach. The first suggests complacency, which depresses the Democratic base. The second could well elevate the Republican, as Democratic intensity begets Republican intensity in a year when Republicans are primed to be intense. The trick is to manage expectations without becoming complacent. The Obama campaign did this rather well during the presidential race.
5. Health care isn't popular. The economy drags down everything. To keep afloat in this scuzzy water, Democrats are going to have to crisply define their Republican opponents as champions of the failed policies that got the country into this mess. Because it is mess. Democrats can't run on stewardship or governance. It's a gamble, and it's not always going to work, but running against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney can be effective, especially in races that'll come down to base turnout.