Massachusetts Special Goes Down to the Wire

January 19, 2010

Massachusetts voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide the contentious Senate special election, and Democratic insiders are hoping the party’s well-established infrastructure is strong enough to hold off the energy and momentum of state Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) campaign.

The race to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’s (D-Mass.) seat has emerged as an early test of how well the party is equipped to handle the dual challenges of beating back an enthusiastic — if not particularly structured — anti-establishment, anti-big-government movement that spans party lines, while motivating loyal Democrats who have grown increasingly disenchanted since the 2008 election.

The latest polls have shown Brown surging to a dead heat or single-digit lead over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) after starting the contest as a significant underdog, mostly thanks to intense support from independent voters fed up with one-party rule in the state and in Washington, D.C.

A Public Policy Polling survey conducted over the weekend found that Brown led Coakley 51 percent to 46 percent, and led 64 percent to 32 percent among likely independent voters, which make up just more than half of registered voters.

And 89 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents in the PPP poll said they were “very excited” to vote, compared to 63 percent of Democrats.

Chris Greeley, a longtime adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) now with Nelson Mullins Public Strategies Group in Boston, said there’s “no mistaking the intensity” of Brown’s supporters.

“If left alone, this would be a really dangerous place right now for a Democrat,” said Greeley. “But it’s not left alone, and we do have the infrastructure and we do have the motivation, and the call has been sounded.”

Indeed, Democrats and their allies have been pouring resources into the race over the past week, and top surrogates, including Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, former President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama — who made a last-minute trip to Boston on Sunday — have all made appearances on Coakley’s behalf. Obama’s Massachusetts appearance is featured in Coakley’s final ad of the campaign, launched Monday.

Greeley said he has received robocalls from Clinton, Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. , and he has been making calls to his own network to try to gin up turnout. “It’s been a while since I did that,” he noted.

The hope among Democrats such as Greeley is that the rush of activity in the final week has served as a wake-up call to the Democratic faithful, and the state party’s infrastructure advantage over its tiny GOP counterpart will in turn deliver those votes Tuesday.

If, however, Brown manages to pull out the win despite all of the Democrats’ built-in advantages in the state and their all-out efforts for Coakley, it will be hard for Democrats to ignore the intensity of the anti-establishment fervor.

Conservative groups and Republicans nationally are making a major push on Brown’s behalf, with supporters donating millions of dollars online in the final week. Republican candidates and third-party groups across the country have also rallied their supporters to donate money and conduct phone banking from their homes.

But it is hardly the seasoned ground-game operation that groups like Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and major labor unions are mobilizing on Coakley’s behalf.

The national Republican Party, meanwhile, has sought to operate below the radar in the race, careful not to upset the perception that Brown is an independent-minded outsider. But they will no doubt use the Massachusetts race, win or lose, to frame the upcoming midterm elections.

“I think a big message has already been sent and that’s when you don’t listen to voters you pay the consequences,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.

“The Coakley campaign made some gaffes here but to try and lay the blame squarely at her feet would be to ignore the obvious,” Walsh said. “This is a state that the Democrats should very easily win with a double-digit victory.”

The Massachusetts race is another signal, Walsh added, that voters want checks and balances in Washington.

And both he and Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this is a phenomenon that is playing out across the country. In an e-mail to reporters on Monday, Spain asserted that the contest is “the rule not the exception,” pointing to a new poll showing freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) trailing former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) by double digits, as well as the retirement announcement on Friday by Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.).

Republicans believe Democrats are also erring by not taking the anti-big-government activists — the “tea party” movement — more seriously. Part of the Democratic strategy in the Massachusetts race has been to seek to tie the most extremist elements within these groups to Brown to demonstrate that he is out of touch with mainstream Massachusetts values.

But while some of Brown’s most rabid supporters may indeed be extremists, polling shows that many are former Obama voters who have turned against the administration and its agenda. As PPP noted in its polling analysis, Brown is winning 20 percent of the vote among likely voters who supported Obama in 2008.

“For the most part it’s people who voted for Obama and aren’t happy with how he’s performed in office,” PPP’s Tom Jensen wrote in his analysis of the results. “Among the Obama/Brown voters just 22 percent approve of the President’s work and only 13 percent support his health care plan.”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman contested the notion that the election was about Obama, in particular, and said the major lesson for Democrats is that, “The overall political environment matters and right now the economy is having a terribly negative effect on the environment for Democrats.”

The tightness of the Massachusetts race, he said, can be attributed to a combination of that environment, the idiosyncrasies of a January special election, and a campaign and candidate on the Democratic side that did not perform optimally.

Local Democrats, meanwhile, seem befuddled by the phenomenon that is propelling Brown’s campaign. On a conference call of woman mayors supporting Coakley Monday morning, a handful of Democratic mayors struggled to explain why Coakley has found herself in such a tough fight.

“I do think that if you really look at their records, on the issues that are important to everyone,” Coakley has “got an outstanding track record,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “It shouldn’t even be close!”

And yet Brown now has a realistic shot of being sworn in to succeed Kennedy by the beginning of February. Due to federal law requiring a 10-day grace period after Election Day for the state to receive military and overseas absentee ballots, the earliest that the special election can be certified is Jan. 30.
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