Cape Cod and Scott Brown: Lessons For the Midterm Elections?

BY Talea Miller  March 29, 2010 at 1:02 PM EDT

Hyannis, Mass. — The Massachusetts special Senate election is more than two months old now – ancient history by American political standards. But if you walk up Main Street here, past the Cape Cod Central Railroad Building, you’ll still see a banner hanging off the second floor: “Scott Brown for U.S. Senate, the John Wayne of politics.”

Senator Brown did very well here in the January election – he captured more than 57 percent of the vote on Cape Cod – and his success has the Republican Party thinking big for November. Maybe this part of the Bay State, historically more conservative than the rest, can deliver a GOP win in the local 10th Congressional District here.

But that banner makes one wonder what the vote was all about.

Cape Cod, also known as Barnstable County, is classified as a “Monied ‘Burb” in Patchwork Nation, the kind of relatively well-off swing-voting area that usually plays a big role in elections. And they have swung in the past year.

President Obama carried the vote here by double digits in 2008. Yet, just a little more than a year later, Brown essentially reversed the numbers. Is Cape Cod a bellwether for this autumn’s midterms elections? And what happened?

Taffy and T-shirts and voters

There are a few ways to try to answer those questions.

Walk a little further down Main Street – a mix of candy stores, T-shirt shops, and restaurants – and you’ll get an understanding. The off-season in this tourist area is always slow, but there are empty storefronts looking for businesses to fill them even in high-traffic areas. The unemployment rate in this county has skyrocketed from 6.7 percent in November 2008 to 9.5 percent in November 2009 to 13.6 percent in January 2010.

Those numbers describe an area that has been pounded by the recession and offer one explanation of what happened in the January Senate election. Quite possibly, Cape Cod was simply looking for something different. When one sees the local unemployment rate double in a little more than a year, a vote for “change” doesn’t seem hard to explain.

Brown, framed as “John Wayne,” no doubt seemed like a good idea for many of the voters on the Cape – a lone, quiet man riding into town to take on the black hats in Washington.

November is far off

Getting a read on what this means for November’s midterm elections, however, is no easy task.

Walk around Hyannis now, and the most “vote for” signs (by far) are for Siobhan Magnus, the local “American Idol” contestant.

The primary to pick the Democratic and Republican candidates who will ultimately vie for the open 10th Congressional District seat isn’t until Sept. 14. Right now, the race is shaping up to be three GOP contenders, two on the Democratic side, plus an independent or two.

That late date for the primary is important here. It means that people’s attention probably won’t turn to politics until after another summer vacation season, which will likely be critical to their perceptions about the economy.

Which makes reading too much into the Brown vote perilous.

The vote here, like the “Monied ‘Burbs” in general, is not as firmly ideological as it is elsewhere. Voters’ decisions will likely depend more on the economic picture more than anything else.

As the sign on Main Street shows, Brown won the Cape when he was framed as cowboy John Wayne, not Republican Ronald Reagan.