How is it possible that a Republican just might have a chance at a Senate seat in one of the bluest states in the US?
The Massachusetts special election on Jan. 19 to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy was supposed to be an easy win for Martha Coakley (D), Massachusetts’ attorney general. She’s run statewide campaigns before, has good name recognition with voters, and received the backing of Senator Kennedy’s wife and family.
In contrast, her challenger, state Sen. Scott Brown (R), is a previously little-known local politician in a state that has three Democrats for every Republican.
But Senator Brown has benefited from several factors – both inside the state and nationally. Among them: the healthcare-reform debate, the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, and a lackluster campaign by Brown’s opponent. Add to that Democrats’ flagging support across the United States, and suddenly, Brown is the underdog candidate with a shot at the race.
Ms. Coakley and Brown are in direct opposition regarding the healthcare reform bill: While Coakley has pledged her support, Brown has promised to vote against it.
This is significant because Massachusetts’ new senator could be in office before the Senate votes on the final version of the bill. For the legislation to pass, Senate Democrats need to maintain the 60 “yea” votes that they collected for their earlier vote on Dec. 24. On the other hand, if Republicans add one vote – bringing them up to 41 – they could sustain a filibuster.
“To the degree that there’s a defining issue, it’s whether the winner of this race will be the 41st vote or the 60th vote for healthcare reform,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
National issues, national interest
The focus on healthcare reform has meant this race is far from local.
Brown announced Tuesday that he was able to raise $1.3 million for his campaign in a single 24-hour period with an online push. Accompanying the announcement was the slogan, “red invades blue.”
Coakley has also been courting out-of-state donors, and she attended a fundraising event in Washington Tuesday night.
Both candidates have been receiving support from national partisan groups purchasing television ads on their behalf. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Service Employees International Union have been spending big for Coakley, while four Republican groups have purchased air time for Brown.
National political figures have also gotten involved. Brown has been endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called Coakley an “entrenched machine candidate” and a “sock puppet” for her party on his show Tuesday. Coakley has enjoyed support from former President Clinton, who made robo-calls on her behalf before the Dec. 8 primary and is scheduled to campaign with her on Friday.
Simply put, “this race has been nationalized,” Professor Berry says.
When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, domestic terrorism became a bigger political issue.
Brown has used the attack, as well as his 30 years in the National Guard, to position himself as the homeland-security candidate in the Senate race. In the final debate between the candidates on Monday, he repeatedly accused Coakley of allowing terrorist suspects to “lawyer up.”
“To give people who want to kill us constitutional rights and lawyer them up at our expense instead of treating them as enemy combatants and getting as much information as we can ... it doesn’t make sense to me,” Brown said.
While Brown has been working to energize his base and attract independent voters, Coakley’s campaign has been widely criticized for its perceived complacency.
“Coakley made a strategic error in not trying to define [Brown] before he could define himself,” Berry says. “She ceded the stage to him, and he put her on the defensive.”
The Coakley campaign’s strategy might have been to minimize Brown. But her silence about Brown allowed him to get out his own message largely uncontested.
“As Brown was improving his name recognition, Coakley’s campaign did not put any bruises on him,” says Dan Payne, a Massachusetts-based Democratic media consultant.
In Monday’s debate, Coakley tried to combat allegations of complacency, saying her only pause in campaigning was for Christmas. She has also tried in recent days to shift the debate to issues that she believes will favor her, such as abortion.
The independent voter
Even though Massachusetts is one of the bluest states, there are more independent voters than the sum of Democrats and Republicans.
“A lot of independents in the state are former Democrats who left the party. Some are conservatives,” explains Todd Domke, a Massachusetts-based GOP strategist. “If you’re unhappy with status quo, Scott Brown gives you a chance to fire a shot that would be heard around the world.”
That’s tempting for voters who might want to send a message to Washington.
“The winds are blowing against Democrats nationally right now,” agrees Mr. Payne. “You have to factor that into this race.”
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