Missing messages in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Scott Brown votes in election.

For those of you whose spouse didn't force them to watch MSNBC all night last night, the big news is that somehow the unthinkable happened: Republican Scott Brown (pictured, right) won the Senate seat held, until his recent death, by Democratic Ted Kennedy. Until a couple of days ago, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley was considered a shoo-in. It's not that Republicans haven't won state-wide office in Massachusetts, it's just that they haven't had a Republican senator in many moons. I'm sure everyone will be spinning what this election means for political parties, political movements and President Barack Obama's legislative agenda. I didn't even know about this race until last week when someone sent in a Washington Times story, a blog post really, about how Coakley was trying to make an issue out of Brown's support for conscience protections. Here she is in an interview with a Massachusetts radio talk show host:

Ken Pittman: In the emergency room you still have your religious freedom.

Martha Coakley: (...uh, eh...um...) The law says that people are allowed to have that. You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn't work in the emergency room.

The story was huge in the Catholic, pro-life and conservative blogospheres, where her views went over like a lead balloon. But it didn't really get much mainstream media coverage. Both Coakley and Brown support legalized abortion, for what it's worth, although Brown has a more favorable view of restrictions on abortion. Massachusetts is the second-most Catholic state in the union with 44 percent of the population.

It's my own view that Brown owes his victory more to voters concerned about government growth than voters concerned about social issues, but it was surprising how little religion was discussed by the national media covering this race. Or, as Chris Matthews said the other night on MSNBC (via NewsBusters):

CHRIS MATTHEWS: But this election's interesting. I don't even know what religion -- religion seems to play no role in this election, which is so unique in Massachusetts. Brown is a Protestant. Nobody's even mentioned it -- I guess I just did. And Coakley's I guess a Catholic, although I don't think that she sort of squares away that way in terms of her politics. So I mean it's just so interesting: it's so post-tribal.

It is interesting that a Protestant would win a Senate seat in Massachusetts. He's a member of a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. There's no doubt that Brown's messages about government and the economy resonated with most of yesterday's voters. And the media did cover that, some more reluctantly than others. But I didn't see any coverage about how the two candidates' views on social issues played with voters, much less what those views were.

I did come across this other article, which I'm positive did not seem so spectacularly wrong when it first ran, that dealt a little bit with the issue. It was published in mid-December in the Boston Phoenix and was headlined:

Even GOP insiders don't expect Scott Brown to beat Martha Coakley. But they care how he loses.

Reporter David Bernstein refers to Coakley's imminent victory as a "pre-ordained drubbing" and suggests that Brown was running a "hopeless" race only to position himself better for a future run for governor. He adds that Republicans "harbor no illusions" about whether he'll lose or not. This is not his fault. Nobody expected Brown to win a month ago. Anyway, he describes Brown thusly:

Throughout his political career, Brown has been considered a staunch conservative. His first race for the State Senate, in 2004, was defined largely by the issue of same-sex marriage, which Brown opposed. He is extremely popular among the conservative base of the state party, say insiders.

That's worrisome to those in the wing of the state GOP -- personified by gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker -- who believe the party needs moderate candidates who focus on job creation and fiscal responsibility. They want to downplay social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and to distance themselves from the hard-line rhetoric of the Tea Party movement.

On the other hand, the article says that his more conservative opponents have referred to him as a Republican in name only.

Brown is the new Republican Senator from Massachusetts. But he won by uniting a coalition that we're still learning about. It's my sense that his win is related to the other Republican victories last year, sure, but also related to that huge outpouring of public concern seen at town halls and Tea Party protests. Brown didn't mention the word "Republican" once in his victory speech. He did mention the word "independent" quite a bit.

This independent movement is emerging, we don't exactly know what's fueling it. We know that the voters supporting it are concerned about federal power as it relates to economic issues. And we know that social concerns aren't the driving force. But does that mean that social concerns aren't important to them at all? Probably not. And does religion play a role in shaping the outlook of these people? How? It would be great to know and hopefully the media will begin to actually cover the movement a bit better than they've done in the last year.

Please do let us know if you see any good religion coverage of this race and what it means in Massachusetts or the country at large.

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