By Heidi Przybyla and John McCormick
(Bloomberg)—Republican Scott Brown won a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in a political upset that imperils health-care legislation in Congress and sends a warning shot to President Barack Obama and Democrats ahead of November's midterm elections.
The loss by the once-favored Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley for the seat held by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy for nearly half a century shook the nation's political dynamics.
Brown was leading Coakley, 52 percent to 47 percent, with 98 percent of the state's precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Independent candidate Joseph Kennedy, no relation to the late senator, had about 1 percent of the vote.
Speaking to jubilant supporters, Brown said tonight, "I bet they can hear this cheering all the way to Washington D.C."
"Anyone who's been out on the campaign trail, particularly in this race, has seen the anger of folks who are frustrated, concerned," Coakley said in her concession speech tonight. "They are angry about health-care issues and they're angry about our two wars, our inability to properly care for those who return home after fighting."
The race came to exemplify the nation's political divide over health care, taxes and the role of government. It also provided a measure of Obama's prestige and his party's momentum heading into this year's congressional elections.
Brown, 50, a previously little-known state senator, cast himself as an independent voice to would help thwart Obama's health-care plan and keep a check on Democrats in Congress, particularly on tax-increase proposals.
Brown's victory increases his party's Senate numbers to 41, which would give Republicans enough members in the 100-person Senate to block votes on an overhaul of the U.S. health-care system, Obama's top legislative goal.
His victory, in a state Obama won by 26 percentage points in the 2008 election, follows recent Democratic losses. In November, the president's party lost the governor's mansions in New Jersey and Virginia. Five House Democrats since November have decided to retire instead of face potentially tough races later this year.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the president had spoken to both candidates about the outcome. "The president congratulated Senator Brown on his victory and a well- run campaign," Gibbs said in a statement. "The president told Senator Brown that he looks forward to working with him on the urgent economic challenges facing Massachusetts families and struggling families across our nation."
Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement that it would be "fair and prudent" to suspend further votes on health-care legislation until Brown is seated.
The Massachusetts vote represents "a tsunami in American politics," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University pollster.
The last Republican senator from Massachusetts was Edward Brooke, who was elected to the last of his two terms in 1972.
Once Brown is sworn in, Democrats will lose the 60-vote super-majority that has allowed them to overcome often-unanimous Republican opposition to Obama's legislative initiatives. Brown's election comes just as Democratic congressional leaders are negotiating a final version of a health-care bill that many Democrats view as a tribute to Kennedy's decades of work on the issue.
Brown's presence in the Senate will force Obama to "dramatically alter" his domestic agenda, Blendon said.
Former Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci, a Republican, warned his party's national leaders against interpreting the results as a wholesale movement toward Republicans.
Brown described himself as independent-minded, and campaigned without deploying Republican heavyweights such as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to stump for him.
Instead, he crisscrossed the state in a pickup truck and appeared days before the election with Boston Red Sox pitching legend Curt Schilling and John Ratzenberger, an actor who played a mail carrier on the "Cheers" television comedy.
"The message for the national Republican Party should be, even though people aren't happy with the Democrats right now, if we get back to power we can find ways to be independent and be bipartisan," Cellucci said. "People are sick of this partisanship."
Brown will serve the rest of Kennedy's term, ending in January 2013. He will replace Paul Kirk, a Kennedy friend and former head of the Democratic National Committee who was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick on Sept. 24 to temporarily fill the seat.
Brown told CNN before the results were known that he would expect to take office quickly and already has made plans to travel to Washington on Jan. 22. As House and Senate Democrats seek to combine each chamber's version of health-care legislation, Republicans want to avoid delays.
Massachusetts has up to 10 days after the election to send results to the governor and the governor's council, which must certify the results. Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts secretary of the commonwealth, said that gives cities and towns the chance to count ballots from the military and overseas.
Brown's election, in a state long considered a Democratic stronghold, could have an impact on Democrats and potential Republican competitors in closely divided districts across the country.
"You're going to see not only an infusion of real money, but also a lot of good-quality candidates come out and want to run—because they smell blood in the water," said Republican strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
Once that happens, "the damage is already done," even if economic conditions across the nation improve, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The House and Senate are trying to reach a compromise on the U.S. health-care system's largest revamp since the Medicare program for the elderly was created more than four decades ago.
Coakley, 56, had said she would vote for health-care legislation while Brown vowed to block it. Democrats have controlled 60 of the Senate's 100 votes, and needed all 60 to thwart Republican efforts to prevent a final vote of the chamber's version of the bill in December.
"There's a reason the nation was focused on this race: The voters in Massachusetts have made it abundantly clear where they stand on health care," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. "They don't want this bill."
In 2006, Brown voted as a state senator for a Massachusetts universal health-care bill that has been used as a model by the president's administration.
Massachusetts, in part due to Kennedy and his brother, former President John Kennedy, has long been regarded as among the most Democratic-leaning states.
While Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 3-to-1 on the state's voter registration rolls, 51 percent of Massachusetts voters aren't registered with either party. The state has a history of electing Republican governors, who held that post from 1991 to 2007. Still, all 10 of the Massachusetts House seats are held by Democrats.
The last time Kennedy faced a competitive Senate race was 1994, when Republican Mitt Romney closed the gap in the polls before losing by 17 percentage points. That was the same year Democrats lost their congressional majorities as part of the so-called Republican Revolution.
Romney, a former Republican presidential candidate who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007, said the Senate election was a "referendum" on Obama's agenda and style of leadership.
"The people here in Massachusetts, in the bluest of blue states, are saying they don't like that kind of arrogance, they want to see more balance," Romney said on Fox News.
Coakley ran against political headwinds such as lingering high unemployment. The Massachusetts unemployment rate was 8.8 percent in November, down from a peak of 9.3 percent in September. Nationally, "until those numbers improve the outlook for the Democrats is very bleak," said Baker.
Local issues also influenced the Massachusetts race, including a recent state tax increase and abuse-of-power scandals surrounding the state's Democratic Party. "It's much more local," said Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
Perhaps most importantly, the Coakley campaign failed to take the threat from Brown seriously. Coakley opened two district offices to Brown's five and she kept a far lighter schedule of campaign events.
"She thought the election was won," said Edwin Betancourt, 39, a Boston Democrat who voted for Brown.
Duffy said Coakley "wasn't out there while Brown was running a sprint."
Kennedy, 77, died Aug. 25 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. A Democrat, he had served in the Senate since 1962, when he won the seat once held by his brother John.