Scott Brown, once a little-known Republican state senator, has pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory, beating Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley 52 percent to 47 percent in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.
Brown ran an energetic, outsider's campaign in a year that Gallup has called the most anti-incumbent since the Watergate era. His populist message tapped into a deep well of voter anger and frustration and gave him a massive, 75 percent advantage among independent voters, who make up more than half of the electorate.
"Tonight, the independent majority has delivered a great victory," Brown said in his victory speech Tuesday night. "I will remember that while the honor is mine, this Senate seat belongs to no one person, no one political party, and as I said before and you heard it today, this is the people's seat."
The raucous audience at the event interrupted Brown frequently, with chants of "Go, Scott, go!" and "Gas up the truck," a reference to the pickup he used to crisscross the state.
Brown also spoke of Ted Kennedy, calling him "a tireless worker and a big-hearted public servant who, for most of his lifetime, was a force like no other in this state. There's no replacing a man like that, but tonight I honor the memory and I pledge to be the very best, worthy successor to the late Sen. Kennedy."
In addition to his kind words for Kennedy, Brown vowed in his speech to vote against the Democrats' health care reform effort that the late senator had championed for most of his career.
The loss of the Kennedy seat is both a stunning symbolic defeat for President Barack Obama, who won Massachusetts in the 2008 campaign by a 26-point margin, and a devastating complication for Capitol Hill Democrats, who will lose their crucial 60-vote majority in the Senate when Brown is sworn in, likely in the next two weeks.
Coakley conceded the race just before 10 p.m. Eastern time, saying she was "heartbroken" at the outcome. "Anybody who has been out on the campaign trail, especially in this race, has seen the anger of folks who are frustrated and concerned," she told supporters in Boston. "They are angry about health care issues, about our two wars, our inability to take care of those who return from fighting. I had hoped to go to Washington to address these issues."
The result sent shock waves through Democratic circles as leaders and rank-and-file members alike tried to interpret the lessons of Coakley's defeat. Reaction from Washington Democrats was swift, but far from united, with some arguing that the results prove that voters want change to come faster than Democrats are delivering, while others said voters want something entirely different from the change President Obama has delivered since taking office exactly one year ago.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats need to move faster, not slower, on their agenda. "In the days ahead, we will sort through the lessons of Massachusetts: the need to redouble our efforts on the economy, the need to show that our commitment to real change is as powerful as it was in 2008, and the reality that we cannot take a single thing for granted," he said.
But Coakley's pollster, Celinda Lake, told CNN that Democrats need to wake up to the reality that Brown's victory represents. "There is a wave here," she said. "The first shore was New Jersey and Virginia, where the Democratic governors lost. The second was Massachusetts. It's coming to the island now and Democrats better be ready."
Even before the polls closed, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs let it be known that President Obama was "not pleased" with the turn of events that left Coakley trailing Brown on Election Day. "He was surprised and frustrated," Gibbs said.
Although Gibbs acknowledged a sentiment of "upset and anger" in the country over the economy, he also argued that the president had done his part to help win the race in Massachusetts.
As the reality settled in for Democrats that their plans could be in jeopardy, White House aides and Capitol Hill leaders insisted that a Brown win would not change their intention to move an agenda forward.
After jittery members of the House Democratic caucus huddled in Washington to talk about health care, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assured reporters, "We're right on course." Regardless of what happens in Massachusetts, she said, "We will have a health care reform bill, and it will be soon."
Pelosi's comments came after Steny Hoyer, the majority leader, told reporters that "moving ahead on health care is essential," and that passing a bill before Brown is sworn in would be feasible.
But Democrats in the House and Senate threw that notion into grave doubt after Brown's resounding victory.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) suggested stopping action on health care entirely in the short term. "It is vital that we restore the respect of the American people in our system of government and in our leaders," Webb said in a statement. "To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated."
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), a liberal member of the caucus, echoed that sentiment. "We've got to recognize we have an entirely different scenario now," Weiner told reporters Tuesday night. "When you have large numbers of citizens in the United States of America who believe this is going in the wrong direction, there's a limit to which you can keep saying, 'OK, they just don't get it. If we pass a bill they'll get it.' No. I think that maybe we should internalize that we are not doing things entirely correctly."
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that Democrats would seat Brown as soon as the results are official. "When there is a certified winner in Massachusetts and the Senate has received appropriate papers, and the vice president is available, the successor to Senators Kennedy and Kirk will be sworn in," Jim Manely said.
Kirk is a reference to Paul Kirk, who was appointed to Kennedy's seat after the senator's death in August. He pledged not to seek election, ostensibly to allow for another Democrat to fill the seat that the Kennedy family had held since 1953.