WASHINGTON // When Ted Kennedy, the Senate's "liberal lion", died in August, few would have believed that the seat his family controlled since 1953 would soon fall into Republican hands. On Tuesday, however, the improbable happened: a little-known Republican state senator, Scott Brown, wrested Kennedy's former Senate seat from the Democrats, altering the balance of power in Washington and dealing a potentially crushing blow to the president Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
The victory gives Republicans 41 seats in the Senate, enough to block Democratic initiatives, including healthcare reform legislation, which is Mr Obama's top domestic priority. It also amounts to a stunning rejection of Mr Obama's policies, many analysts say, and shows for the first time the full extent to which popular anger - which propelled Mr Obama to victory in 2008 - has now turned against his party.
The rising federal deficit, double-digit unemployment, and the testy battle over healthcare reform contributed to Mr Brown's unlikely success in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one. More than half the state's electorate is comprised of independents, or unenrolled voters, and they broke heavily for Republicans on Tuesday, raising the prospect of more losses for Democrats in this year's midterm elections.
"This is a stinging defeat and it clearly changes the calculus of a lot of things," William Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said. "This has been a message, among other things, from the people that they are not satisfied with the conditions of the country, particularly the economy, and they'd like the administration and Congress to get to work."
The most pressing question for Democrats now is what to do with the pending healthcare reform legislation, which House and Senate leaders have been negotiating behind closed doors this week. Dropping the reform effort altogether would be a major political setback for Mr Obama and his fellow democrats, but rushing the bill through Congress also carries political risks. Democrats could turn to a rarely used procedural tactic called "reconciliation" that requires only a simple majority for final passage. Another option would be for the House to pass the Senate version of the legislation without negotiations.
Without providing specifics, Democratic leaders and White House officials said yesterday that they planned to press ahead with the reform effort. "We will move forward," Nacy Pelosi, the House speaker, said. The electoral success of Mr Brown, who ran primarily on his opposition to the healthcare reform bill - he reiterated in his victory speech on Tuesday that the measure would "destroy jobs and run our nation deeper into debt" - highlights just how unpopular the legislation has become after months of public debate.
The senator Evan Bayh of Indiana was among a group of Democrats who believed their party should downsize its ambitions. "It's why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren't buying our message," Mr Bayh told ABC News. "They just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems." "If you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call," he added, "there's no hope of waking up".
Democrats lost two other nationally important contests - the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia - since Mr Obama took office. At the time, some Democratic strategists sought to downplay the national significance of those races, saying they hinged on local issues, not national ones. But the national significance of Mr Brown's victory in Massachusetts, the first such Republican victory there since 1972, is hard to ignore. "I think it would be a mistake to write this off as just a speed bump and it certainly would be a mistake to write this off as a local election determined by local factors," Mr Galston said. "This is clearly a race that was waged on national issues, and it has national implications."
In November, a third of the country's Senate seats and all 435 House seats are up for re-election. Some believe that Democrats will have to recalibrate their message, and do so quickly, to stem what could be a wave of victories by Republicans. Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, said he believed Mr Obama would have to drop his health care plans and "pivot" his message, starting with his "State of the Union" address next week.
"He's got to go to the American people and say look: I am not going to cut any special deals to get healthcare through, I am not going to try to violate the rules. I am willing to put this on suspension for now and focus, for the moment, this administration on protecting national security and improving the economy," Mr Lichtman said. "I think if he did that, his approval rating would go up 10 points."
In recent days, there have been signs that Democrats are seeking to sound a more populist tone. In a stump speech on Sunday for Martha Coakley, the Democrat who was defeated in Tuesday's race, Mr Obama highlighted a proposed fee on Wall Street banks to recoup billions of dollars spent on the financial bailout. Meanwhile, he sought to paint Republicans as "protectors of big banks". He did not mention his healthcare initiative.
"We've got to get populist," said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic political operative who worked on victorious Senate campaigns for Mr Kennedy in 1994 and John Kerry, another long-serving Democratic senator from Massachusetts, in 1996. Mr Devine said that while the election was a reprimand for Democrats, it did not amount to a ringing endorsement for Republicans. Mr Brown ran largely as an independent, he noted, and Republicans remain unpopular nationwide.
"We've got to draw lines and talk about the differences we have with the other side," he said. "If anything, the election cycle is engaged right now and we've got to go and get into it." Mr Brown won 53 per cent of the vote, to 47 per cent for Ms Coakley. firstname.lastname@example.org