In the end, the deciding factor in the highly watched race to fill what many have long called “the Kennedy Senate seat” in Massachusetts between Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown could come down to this: as both highly parties battle out a struggle that is now a surrogate for advancing/stopping President Barack Obama’s agenda, the victory will likely go to the one who can make the biggest inroads among increasingly disgruntled independent and moderate voters.
Today Obama is heading to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley in what now should be seen as a disturbing political pattern for Democrats: in several races now he got out on the hustings at the last minute when it may have been too late to turn the vote around. And, in the end, in the Governors’ races in New Jersey or Virginia, it proved too little, too late and his candidate lost…as did Obama, due to lost perceived clout. People don’t fear your political power if the people you campaign for keep tanking at the polls.
Will history repeat itself again? That won’t be known until the election results are counted, but what is certain is that the race will not be determined just by the gleeful predictions of conservative talk show hosts and bloggers, the frantic calls to vote by liberal bloggers and progressive talk show hosts. Not by former Mayor Rudy Guiliani campaigning for Brown as Brown proclaims that Obama should stay out of the race because Massachusetts doesn’t need outsiders. And, most likely, not by Obama plopping himself in Massachusetts and trying to re-run a medley of his best speeches.
It will likely be determined by the particular dynamics of Massachusetts politics, whether beneath the surface Massachusetts voters consider the former “Kennedy seat” a kind of trust representing a specific political world view, whether there is beneath the surface sentiment to definitively close the Kennedy family chapter by making it clear the seat is now free from the influence of historical sentiment or lingering dynastic political coat-tails — and whether voters want to send Obama and the Democrats a message (we’ll give you some more time OR sorry your time is up.)
And then there is this thought: when the votes are counted, what will be more grating? The high fives of Keith Olbermann — or Rush Limbaugh seen on video cam in his studio doing a victory dance?
What is certain: moderate and independent voters will play a key role and the election outcome’s implications can have far-reaching implications beyond the Tuesday vote. The Christian Science Monitor:
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.
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.
To those who think Massachusetts is merely a Democratic state, the Monitor notes that it had Republican governors for 16 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.”
And a recent poll, the Monitor notes, shows that Massachusetts independent voters increasingly favor Brown.
In addition, the paper points out, Brown has been actively wooing independent voters — while Coakley has been largely going after her party’s base.
But here is the wild card: independent voters in Massachusetts are less likely to turn out and vote.
And so Obama heads to campaign for the Democratic candidate — even though there is an outside chance it’ll boomerang (although if New York’s Giuliani delivers a speech blasting outsiders getting involved in the race it may not be helpful to Brown…). The New York Times:
In a last-ditch effort to avert a debacle for the Democrats, the White House announced that President Obama would campaign here on Sunday for Martha Coakley, the Democratic Senate candidate, amid growing signs that the race for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat has become too close to call.
With a new Suffolk University/7 News poll showing the race in a virtual tie, the announcement is fraught with political peril for Mr. Obama — particularly if Ms. Coakley loses the seat to the Republican, State Senator Scott Brown. Nonetheless, the president’s advisers concluded that Mr. Obama’s fortunes were already tied to the outcome of the race, so there was no reason to keep him away from Massachusetts.
The question that will — and should — be asked by Democrats, political junkies and the White House is: if in several races Obama felt compelled to go in at the last minute, if the assumption is that his campaigning helped, should he in the future bite the bullet and go in earlier when he might truly make a difference? The Times notes various polls showing Brown pulling ahead of close behind Coakley, then adds:
Mr. Obama has already urged Democrats to the polls in a video message and recorded telephone messages. But with his principal domestic policy initiative at stake — Mr. Brown has already said he would be the 41st and crucial vote against the health care bill — the president decided to risk embarrassment and hit the stump.
The president decided Friday to go to Massachusetts after Ms. Coakley called his senior adviser, David Axelrod. Mr. Axelrod told reporters that Mr. Obama would make the case that Ms. Coakley would stand up to the banking and insurance industries, while her opponent would not.
Mr. Axelrod said the economy had created an anti-incumbent mood, but predicted Ms. Coakley would win because “ultimately I don’t think people are going to vote for a faux advocate for working people when they can have a real one.”
….Both campaigns used star power on Friday to try to galvanize support. Mr. Brown appeared in Boston with former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, and Ms. Coakley spoke at packed rallies in Boston and Worcester featuring former President Bill Clinton, Senator John F. Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick.
Anything could potentially skewer the election results, some believe. For instance, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks Oakley could be hurt by not knowing the answer to a sports question:
There’s just 72 hours of campaigning left in the Massachusetts Senate special election and national Democrats — from the White House on down — are working overtime to try and save state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) from a devastating defeat.
Coakley isn’t doing much to help her cause; her latest gaffe came in a radio interview in which she seemed to be uncertain who former Red Sox great Curt Schilling was, referring to him as a “Yankee fan” before being corrected by the host. (Her campaign said she was making a joke; listen for yourself here.)
For those who dismiss Coakley’s gaffe as trivial, consider this: In a state as sports-obsessed as Massachusetts, the idea that a politician wouldn’t at least know who Schilling is paints a picture of a candidate out of touch with the lives of average citizens — always a dangerous thing for a politician.
Such is politics in the 21st century..
Coakley is now actively seeking the help of organized labor (will they ask her about sports and will she risk losing the union vote, if Cillizza’s analysis is correct? She needs to brush up on her ESPN viewing ASAP), the AP reports.
What will happen? Some such as John Keller, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggest the vote will be a sign of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic, anti-health care backlash:
With characteristic hubris, people in this state like to think they’ve been at the leading edge of American politics since the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1775. And in the past few years, we’ve given the nation a preview of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with Deval Patrick’s successful 2006 bid for governor; provided a critical boost for Mr. Obama’s candidacy in the form of an endorsement by Edward Kennedy; and enacted a health-care law that is a template for ObamaCare.
But hubris has yielded to shock here at the possibility that the next political trend the Bay State might foreshadow is a voter backlash against the Democratic Party.
After Kennedy’s death in August, few imagined there would be any problem replacing him with another Democrat in the U.S. Senate. It’s been 16 years since Massachusetts elected a Republican to a congressional seat, 31 years since the last Republican senator left office. Gov. Patrick appointed a former Kennedy aide as the interim senator, and Democratic primary voters chose the well-regarded state Attorney General Martha Coakley as their nominee for the special election. …
Further down he writes:
But nothing excites Mr. Brown’s supporters more than his vow to stop ObamaCare by denying Democrats the 60th vote they would need in the U.S. Senate to shut off a GOP filibuster. The Rasmussen and Suffolk polls report that once-overwhelming statewide support for the federal health reform has fallen to a wafer-thin majority.
Support for the state’s universal health-care law, close to 70% in 2008, is also in free fall; only 32% of state residents told Rasmussen earlier this month that they’d call it a success, with 36% labeling it a failure. The rest were unsure. Massachusetts families pay the country’s highest health insurance premiums, with costs soaring at a rate 7% ahead of the national average, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund.
Doubt about the Massachusetts health-care reform “does not necessarily translate into opposition to the federal bill,” cautions veteran local Democratic strategist Stephen Crawford, who is not working for any candidate in the Senate race. “I don’t think opposition to the plan is going to be a make-or-break issue.” That’s a far cry from the once widely-held belief here that the Democratic nominee would be hustled into office by voters eager to pass ObamaCare. But it reflects a conviction among local Democratic elites that antitax and anti-big-government politics are “a tired strategy, the same old Karl Rove playbook,” as Mr. Crawford puts it.
On Tuesday, we’ll have a reading on whether that complacency is justified.
Keller notes that Coakley is trying to tie Brown to the policies of George W. Bush while Brown is tying Coakley to Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid “people actually in power.”
Which underscores another emerging GOP motif.
Increasingly Democrats want to remind voters how America got in the mess that is requiring present policies and often-controversial policy proposals and to keep it in context. Many Republicans want voters to remember perceptions formed after Obama took over the Oval Office and to think less about the before-Obama context (if at all).
And the outcome? Many Republican new and old media analysts are already proclaiming that Brown will win. Many Democratic new and old media analysts sound alarmed as if they have concluded he will win, too.
Conservative blogger and Boston-bassed columnist Jules Crittenden, though, offers a different view. His post (which is also contains a roundup) needs to be read in FULL. Here are two key sections from “In the Balance”:
That’s where it hangs right now … not just this race but so much more … and a weird balance it is, in bluest Massachusetts, where the barbarians have broken through the gates and Democrats find themselves backing up the stairwells in the desperate fight for Camelot’s castle keep. Never fear, once wildly popular President Barack Obama’s coming in to stump for Coakley! Be afraid, surging Republican hordes!
He’ll be fighting hard … it’s his own fate which is at stake, after all.
On MLK Jr. Day weekend in Boston, he couldn’t theoretically come better armed. It’s a great opportunity for the president to talk about the Dream, talk about Ted Kennedy’s dream, talk about Martha … careful with the “dreaming” analogies, O. But it should be inspiring, base-mobilizing.
Just a couple of problems. And for all the mythic qualities of this tale, they are tragically mundane.
He outlines the problems (go to the link to read them) – and then offers a prediction:
Even with all of that, it’s hard in this state to imagine Republican Senate win. Republicans don’t win Senate seats in Massachusetts … living memory is growing dim on the last time that happened. But it has been a long generation since there was an open Senate seat, and within that time, three Republicans were elected to the governor’s office. Senate incumbents are notoriously hard to beat anywhere, all the more so when their name is Kennedy in Massachusetts. But Coakley is neither an incumbent nor a Kennedy. She probably would be in a better position if she had put a fraction of the effort into stroking the electorate that Ted Kennedy routinely did.
So where’s all this get us? I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this … an election. Between the widely vacillating, if Brownwardly trending polls, the weather, the stepped-up campaigning, the high-profile thumbs on the scales, this remains impossible to call. Some of those dramatic poll numbers notwithstanding, I don’t expect a Republican rout, but stand ready to be surprised on that score, and would not at all be surprised to see Coakley squeak by, ward off the barbarians. In fact, that is probably the most likely outcome. Unfortunately for Obama and the Dems, even that victory might be too little, too late, too Pyrrhic.
Hey, what’s a great legend without a fall? I know, usually your mythic figure is supposed to accomplish a feat or two pre-tumble …
Read the post in its entirety.
UPDATE: Be sure to read Andrew Sullivan’s comments on the sports gaffe, Republicans, Democrats and Obama.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.