WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s tough job just got a lot tougher.
Massachusetts voters fired off a modern-day “shot heard ‘round the world” on Tuesday by doing what Democrats considered heresy — electing a Republican to the Senate seat left open by the death last August of liberal lion Edward Kennedy.
The shock outcome in the special election spelled trouble for Democrats — making it a sour first anniversary on Wednesday of the day Obama took power with high hopes and dreams.
Suddenly, the ambitious domestic agenda Obama sketched out that day is in jeopardy — starting with a U.S. healthcare overhaul championed by Kennedy and extending to Democratic plans on energy and immigration.
It rang alarm bells for Democrats facing re-election in congressional elections come November and under pressure to create jobs in the weak U.S. economy as Republicans plot a comeback from losses in 2006 and 2008.
“This is further affirmation that Democrats are in deep trouble in the November 2010 elections,” said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said the vote reflected economic angst and populist anger at bank bailouts.
There were long faces at the White House at the victory by Republican state Senator Scott Brown, who has vowed to give Senate Republicans the vote they need to help block Obama’s top legislative priority, healthcare.
If Massachusetts voters were trying to send Democrats a message of concern about the healthcare bill, some Democratic congressional leaders did not appear to be listening.
Democrats who control 60 votes in the Senate — a supermajority able to prevent delaying tactics by outnumbered Republicans — were considering strong-arm tactics to push healthcare through.
“We will have a healthcare reform bill, and it will be soon,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters.
But some Democrats argued that peril would ensue if the Massachusetts outcome was ignored by the party’s leaders.
All 435 House seats and about a third of the 100 Senate seats will be up for election in November. The party in power usually loses seats in the first election after a new president takes office.
“There’s going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this,” Senator Evan Bayh told ABC News, but “if you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up.”
The fact that Brown came out of nowhere to defeat Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley rankled Democrats who were quick to point fingers at Coakley for what they called a bungled campaign.
Among her sins: Acting as if she were entitled and appearing out of touch with the people.
“You have a candidate who took the election for granted, who waited too long to make a real argument,” Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said on MSNBC.
It was not lost on White House officials that voters in Massachusetts were expressing frustration with the country’s 10 percent jobless rate. Obama was expected to pivot quickly to a focus on jobs.
“The president understands that there is frustration out there and is frustrated himself,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Obama’s losing streak is now at three — he was unable to save Democrats who lost in governors’ races last November in Virginia and New Jersey.
He was only invited to campaign on Coakley’s behalf late in the game, after she had lost a 15-point lead in the polls she held as recently as 10 days ago.
Obama’s one-year reviews have not been kind, a point the president mentioned in a somber speech at a black church on Sunday marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“There are times when progress seems too slow. There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts,” he said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney