Reporting from Los Angeles and Boston — In a stunning blow to Democrats, Republican Scott Brown on Tuesday seized the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, handing the GOP the crucial vote that could thwart President Obama's far-reaching agenda, beginning with healthcare reform.
More broadly, Brown's epic upset signals the start of what could be an exceedingly tough year nationwide for Democrats, who are fighting to hang on to their majorities in the House and Senate in a political climate that seems to grow more hostile by the day.
"The effort to pass Obama's legislative agenda has grown more difficult, a flood of new Democratic congressional retirements may follow, and Republicans will certainly feel emboldened to expand their list of Democratic targets for the fall election," said Rhodes Cook, an independent campaign analyst.
With 99% of the vote counted, Brown, a state senator, was leading Democratic state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley 52% to 47% -- a lopsidedness that only added to the humiliation for Democrats, who held the seat for well over half a century.
The scene Tuesday night at Brown's victory party in Boston was exultant. Shouts of "Shock the World" and "Yes, We Can" -- Obama's campaign rallying cry -- rang through the packed ballroom at the historic Park Plaza Hotel.
"Tonight, the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken," Brown told the cheering crowd. "This will be the beginning of an election year filled with many surprises. When there's trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured there's trouble everywhere."
The most immediate problem for Democrats is keeping alive Obama's attempt at a healthcare overhaul -- something Kennedy called "the cause of my life."
Polls show that the legislation has grown increasingly unpopular the longer the debate drags on. Brown made his opposition a centerpiece of his campaign and promised to kill the bill upon arrival in Washington, using his vote as the 41st Republican senator -- the exact number the GOP needs to block the legislation.
Democrats appeared to be in disarray. Even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) promised swift action, others in the party called for holding off on any final vote until Brown is sworn into office.
The finger-pointing over the loss in Massachusetts began before the polls closed. White House officials accused Coakley of running a poor campaign. She was complacent to the point of arrogance -- taking extensive time off after the Dec. 8 primary, disdaining the notion of standing outside in the cold, shaking hands -- and committed a series of gaffes, including an assertion during a debate last week that Afghanistan was free of terrorists.
Coakley supporters, however, blamed a backlash against the president, who today marks his first anniversary in office on a decidedly sour note.
Obama, who put his political prestige on the line by making a last-ditch appearance on Coakley's behalf, "was both surprised and frustrated" at how competitive the race had become in this once-sturdy Democratic bastion, spokesman Robert Gibbs said at the White House, while votes were still being cast. "Angry?" a reporter asked. "Not pleased," Gibbs replied.
Brown's victory will surely stoke the debate among Democrats about whether they must recalibrate their strategy ahead of the midterm elections by scaling back their ambitions and working more with Republicans, as party moderates suggest, or use the majority they still hold to push through an uncompromisingly liberal agenda, as many on the left advocate.
The GOP has won three major contests since Obama took office a year ago, capturing the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey in November. Analysts say it will be difficult for Republicans to win the 40 House and 10 Senate seats they need to regain control of Congress. But after Tuesday's special election, the party's prospects have certainly improved.
Charles Cook, another independent election handicapper, likened the results to "an air raid siren going off in . . . the bedroom."
Democrats "have badly damaged their own brand, with one large group of Americans upset that President Obama and congressional Democrats diverted their attention and focus on healthcare and climate change at the expense of the economy and jobs, while another group grew increasingly concerned about an unprecedented expansion in the size, scope and reach of the federal government," Cook said. "These two forces are squeezing Obama and Democrats from opposite directions and doing grave damage to him and his party."
The race to fill Kennedy's seat, scheduled after he died of brain cancer last summer, was expected to be a mere formality after Coakley easily won a four-way primary. Brown, who gained minor fame locally as a former Cosmopolitan centerfold and the father of a semifinalist on "American Idol," beat a perennial losing candidate to claim the little-valued GOP nomination.