The big news about today’s special election in Massachusetts is that it is big news.
The contest between state Attorney General Martha Coakley and her Republican opponent, once-obscure state senator Scott Brown, was never supposed to be much of one. Early forecasts posited that Ted Kennedy’s former seat would be easily reclaimed by a Democratic successor. Instead, Republicans stand poised to score a major upset in the Democratic stronghold – and with it the irony-rich possibility that Kennedy’s seat could become the GOP’s last line of defense against much of the legislative agenda championed by the late liberal lion.
None of this was in the script. Massachusetts has long been friendly Democratic territory. The last Republican to serve as senator of the state – Edward Brooke in 1978 – is a distant memory. It has been 16 years since the state sent a Republican to Congress. Democratic domination is such an accepted fact of life that in 2008 Republicans chose not to run candidates for six House races. It was not a thoughtless decision: In the four competitive races, Republicans were thumped by margins of least 40 percent. Today, Democrats control all ten of the state’s House seats. Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-one. If ever there was a place for Republicans to strike a blow against the Democratic establishment, the Bay State was not it.
For a while, indeed, the Senate race seemed to conform to old patterns. But in recent days the race has tightened dramatically. Last week yielded a series of surprise polls that showed Coakley’s initial advantage crumbling and the race in a statistical dead heat. Some polls even give Brown the advantage: A recent Suffolk University poll showed Brown leading Coakley by 50 percent to 46 percent, while a Politco poll conducted this Monday had Brown with a staggering 9-point lead. Even more worryingly for Democrats’ fortunes, independent voters have been breaking for Brown. In a state where 51 percent of the electorate is unaffiliated with either of the two major parties, the significance of that statistic can not be overstated.
What’s behind Brown’s rise? In part, he has benefited from the insipid and complacent campaign that Coakley has run. Having taken victory for granted, she has spent little time making her case to the voters. The campaign’s desperate last-minute scramble to drum up support – capped by a rescue attempt this weekend by a visiting President Obama – underscores the bankruptcy of that strategy.
With Coakley failing to define herself, Brown has proven adept at demonstrating just what she stands for. One of those things is giving legal rights, including prosecution in civilian courts, to terrorist captives – a position that Brown has had some success exploiting. As a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, Brown not only has credibility on the war in terror; he also has the support of most Americans. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 71 percent of all voters think that would-be Christmas Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow-up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 should be investigated by military authorities as a terrorist act. Just 22 percent take Coakley’s view that such plots should be handled by civilian authorities as a criminal act. Coakley’s retort has been to link Brown with what she has called the failed policies of “the Bush-Cheney administration.” Unpromisingly for this line of attack, however, the Rasmussen poll finds that nearly 60 percent of Americans agree with the original Bush-Cheney view that terrorist captives should be subjected to aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
Coakley hasn’t shored up her national security credentials with her opposition to President Obama’s surge of troops in Afghanistan. More damaging to the campaign has been her defense of that position. In an unfortunate bit of military analysis, Coakley has said that U.S. forces should withdraw from Afghanistan because “we believed that the Taliban was giving harbor to terrorists.” But now, according to Coakley, “They’re gone. They’re not there anymore.” In fact, there is widespread evidence of strategic cooperation between Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda elements – a reality highlighted with the recent murder of seven CIA agents by al-Qaeda double agent and Taliban sympathizer Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in Khost, Afghanistan. In this context, Coakley’s claim that al-Qaeda is no longer a threat in Afghanistan seems about as astute as Gerald Ford’s blundering assurance in a 1976 presidential debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”
Healthcare is another issue that has worked in Brown’s favor. If elected, Brown would deny Senate Democrats the 60-vote supermajority they need to override a GOP filibuster of the health care bill. That makes Brown the man who could stop ObamaCare. The issue has special resonance in Massachusetts, whose increasingly unpopular “universal” health care law is seen as a model for the federal legislation. Once widely supported, the state’s health care program is now a source of voter discontent. Massachusetts families pay the country’s highest health insurance premiums, according to the Commonwealth Fund, and more than a third of state residents consider the law a failure. Strange though it may seem, the fact that Brown may be the critical vote to block the health care bill – Ted Kennedy’s favorite piece of legislation – may actually help him win Kennedy’s seat.
It helps that the telegenic and well-spoken Brown is also an attractive candidate in his own right. His shining moment came during a recent debate, when moderator David Gergen asked if Brown wanted “to sit in Teddy Kennedy’s seat” in order to stop ObamaCare. Brown took memorable issue with that description. “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy’s seat. It’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.” “People’s Seat” has since become campaign supporters’ unofficial rallying cry.
Brown still faces an uphill battle. State Democrats have a larger and more effective political structure in place. And while special elections are generally low-turnout affairs, the prospect of losing a seat so long under Democratic control could propel enough frightened Democrats to the polls.
Even if Brown comes up short, however, the fact that a race many expected to be a Democratic coronation has been so hard-fought sends a clear warning to the Democratic leadership: the Democrats’ domestic policy agenda is now a political liability and could cost them come next fall’s midterm elections. Then there is the more immediate concern. Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat was the Democrats’ to lose. Now lose it they could.