Shannon O'Brien had everything going for her: An open seat in a heavily Democratic state. An unpopular Republican incumbent. A running mate with a bottomless bank account. A "gender gap" that worked in her favor. A solidly united Democratic Party. The endorsement of virtually every Massachusetts labor union. The political muscle of Ted Kennedy and Tom Menino. The star power of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
If anyone was poised to break the Republican lock on the Corner Office, O'Brien was. So why is Mitt Romney today the governor-elect of Massachusetts?
Because Romney spent the last two weeks of the campaign driving home the dangers of a one-party state. And because O'Brien kneecapped herself in the last debate.
For months, Romney had soft-pedaled his Republican label and played up his ability to cooperate with Democrats. But just in time for the home stretch he woke up to the fact that not being a Democrat was his trump card. He began warning voters about the "Gang of Three" -- the Democratic speaker of the House, the Democratic Senate president, and the would-be Democratic governor. He reminded them that if O'Brien won, every branch of state government would be in the grip of the Democratic Party. In so doing, he turned one of O'Brien's greatest strengths -- the seamless unity of Massachusetts Democrats -- into a liability.
Massachusetts votes Democratic. It doesn't vote monopoly.
But no less important was the last debate.
Its timing was crucial -- one week before the election, just when tens of thousands of undecided and previously uninterested voters were tuning into the campaign for the first time. Thanks to Tim Russert and his questions about abortions for 16-year-olds and the death penalty for the DC serial killer, what those nonideological voters saw was a doctrinaire Democrat and a mainstream Republican taking sharply different positions on gut social issues. They saw Romney repeatedly pledge to resist higher taxes, while O'Brien repeatedly refused to answer the question. They contrasted his staunch support for English immersion in school -- a no-brainer for the vast majority of them -- with her dogmatic opposition.
At the moment when it mattered most, on the issues that drew attention, Romney came across as a common-sense conservative, O'Brien as an unwavering liberal. As Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci could have told him, that's how Republicans carry Massachusetts.