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A new senator

Candidates make a study of Brown

Governor’s field examining victory path

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick stepped outside the ornate entryway to his State House office yesterday and declared to a waiting audience that he was a lot like Scott P. Brown, the truck-driving Republican he had campaigned hard to defeat.

“There are some familiar experiences that I sense between Scott Brown’s victory last night and my own three years ago,’’ Patrick told reporters. “It was against the odds. It was with all the political insiders saying it can’t happen. And it was about inviting people, many of whom feel disenfranchised, to reconnect.’’

One day after Brown’s groundbreaking win in the special election for US Senate, the four candidates for governor - including Patrick, the Democratic incumbent - said they wanted to acknowledge and take advantage of the anger and disaffection that Brown successfully harnessed to win a longshot victory against the heavily favored Democratic candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley. Even Patrick, who strongly supported Coakley and was cast by Brown as a member of the Democratic political machine, said he was studying Brown’s path to victory.

“There are absolute lessons to take from that,’’ Patrick said. “There’s a lot of justifiable anger out there, frustration with the pace and the focus of government at all levels. I understand that. That wasn’t news from last night. I hear that when I’m out visiting with people who have been hurt by this economy.’’

But Republicans and even some Democrats called Brown’s win a blow to Patrick, who was already facing a difficult political landscape as he prepares to seek reelection to a second term in November.

The governor’s approval rating fell to 41 percent in a Globe poll this month and to 33 percent among the unenrolled voters who were key to Brown’s win and who outnumber registered Republicans and Democrats in Massachusetts.

“If anything, it ought to create a greater sense of urgency on the part of the governor and the Democratic Party that we have work to do and lots of it,’’ said former governor Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat. “But better now than a week before the election. We are clearly forewarned.’’

Doug Rubin, Patrick’s senior political strategist, sent an e-mail to the governor’s supporters yesterday, asserting that Brown’s victory sent a message that there is “obvious frustration with the status quo.’’

“Yesterday was a wake-up call,’’ Rubin wrote. “We either re-commit to doing the hard work we know brings results, or we risk losing even more serious ground with even greater consequences in 2010.’’

One of Patrick’s challengers, Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, said that as an independent who left the Democratic Party because he believed it was spending and taxing too much, he is best suited to capture the moderate Democrats, suburban voters, and independents who flocked to Brown.

“I think we both speak to Scott Brown’s people and to the anxiety that’s out there,’’ Cahill said, adding, “I don’t think this was a Republican win as much as it was an independent win.’’

Republican candidate Christy Mihos, the convenience store magnate, said he is hoping to reach out to the same tea party activists and grass-roots conservatives who flooded the state to aid Brown.

“Brown’s win came together because the citizen-patriot groups joined the ranks of Republicans and independents and put him over the top,’’ Mihos said. “We really need to harness their energy and harness their loyalty.’’

And Republican candidate Charles D. Baker, a former budget chief in the Weld administration, said he has been campaigning for weeks on the “traditional pocketbook stuff’’ that Brown made a central focus of his campaign.

“I think Scott won because he was talking about what people were worried about: jobs and spending and taxes and their ability to pay the bills that they’re racking up on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill,’’ Baker said. “I think that’s a reasonably consistent message that I’ve been talking about, as well.’’

Baker, a former president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care who is known as a number-crunching policy wonk, said there are limits, however, in how far he can go in trying to replicate Brown’s regular-guy appeal.

“I’m Charlie Baker. I’m from Swampscott. I drive a Pacifica. It’s not quite the same,’’ he said, riffing on Brown’s campaign refrain: “I’m Scott Brown. I’m from Wrentham. I drive a truck.’’

Baker’s supporters said Brown’s win had given them a lift.

“The Brown election reinforces that Massachusetts votes Democratic, but when independent voters get angry and engaged they’re not afraid to vote Republican, and they did yesterday,’’ said former governor Paul Cellucci, a Republican. “They could do it again in November.’’

Former governor Jane Swift, also a Republican, said Brown, by running as a populist focused on taxes and spending and not as an “ideological Republican’’ focused on social issues, showcased a “great formula for success’’ that would also work in the governor’s race.

The gubernatorial candidates said that Brown appeared to campaign more aggressively than Coakley and suggested that the lesson for them is clear.

“I think that was one of the lessons: to work for it and prove you want it,’’ Baker said. “You have to earn every vote.’’

Patrick made a similar point, praising Brown’s focus on retail campaigning.

“It’s affirming how important it is to go out and ask people to engage in their government and in their civic lives,’’ the governor said.

“I think they’ve shown that they respond to that.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.