Massachusetts Senate race hinges on independent vote

Massachusetts is one of the most Democratic states in the country. But moderate Republicans have done well there too over the years, and independent voters are likely to make the difference in the special US Senate race.

By , Correspondent

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    Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, center, campaigns with Massachusetts State Senator Scott Brown as he greets Susan Fantasia in Boston's North End on Friday.
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Massachusetts has long been regarded as a liberal stronghold, but the special election to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy in the US Senate is showing Massachusetts has a more conservative streak as well.

State Sen. Scott Brown (R) is proving to be a major challenge for Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), who was heavily favored early in the race; a poll released late Thursday had Mr. Brown leading Ms. Coakley by 4 percentage points.

Brown’s success may have to do with his ability to appeal to independent voters in the Bay State – 51 percent of voters here are unenrolled.

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True, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1, and the state can be counted on to elect Democratic presidential candidates by consistently wide margins – President Obama won here with a 26-point margin in 2008, Sen. John Kerry by 25 points in 2004.

It’s results like these that routinely place Massachusetts as one of the top states for Democrats in rankings of party affiliation. Last year, a Gallup survey named Massachusetts the third-most Democratic state, behind only Washington D.C. and Rhode Island.

Long history of GOP governors

But Massachusetts voters also gave Republicans the key to the governors’ office for 16 straight years, from 1990 to 2006.

Moreover, Senate races have historically been tight when the Republican candidate is moderate enough to appeal to centrist voters. Sen. John Kerry had close races against Ray Shamie in 1984, Jim Rappaport in 1990, and Bill Weld in 1996 – all of whom earned at least 40 percent of the vote.

Senator Kennedy saw his toughest challenge in 1994 against Mitt Romney, who would later be Massachusetts’ governor and an unsuccessful candidate for president. While Mr. Romney eventually shifted further to the right during his 2008 presidential bid, Massachusetts voters considered him a moderate Republican in his statewide campaigns. In fact, until 1993, Romney was registered as an independent.

For Coakley and Brown, it’s the state’s independents who will likely determine the outcome of the race.

“The majority of registered voters now are independents,” says David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston, which conducted Thursday’s poll. “Despite the fact that they are people who say … they don’t want to be tied to one party, independents have emerged as the political party in Massachusetts now. It’s really about the independent voter.”

Most independents favor Brown

Suffolk’s poll shows 65 percent of voters who identify themselves as independent favor Brown.

“Independents are leaning heavily toward the Republican party,” confirms Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Brown has been more proactive in going after independent voters, addressing issues like family, security, and regional concerns, which are typically hot button issues for independents.

“I am running in the name of all independent-thinking citizens, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or unenrolled, to take on one-party rule,” Brown wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed column published Friday.

His focus on homeland security, in particular, is “a perfect issue to lead with” to attract independent voters, says Stewart.

Coakley sticks with Democratic base

In contrast, Coakley has stuck close to her Democratic base, focusing on abortion rights, healthcare reform, and, more recently, the economy.

“Scott Brown says it’s okay that CEOs can line their pockets and forget about what taxpayers did last year,” Coakley told the crowd at a campaign rally with former President Bill Clinton Friday. “Scott Brown will fight for the wealthy and for Wall Street, and I’m going to fight for you.”

In fact, Coakley’s support of the healthcare reform bill might hurt her with independents, 56 percent of whom oppose the proposed national legislation.

Still, while independents may prefer Brown, they are also historically much less likely to turn out to vote.

“They’re half the electorate, but they’re not half the voting power,” says Stewart. “The great middle is tending toward Brown, so then the question is who turns out.”

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