For Democrats, it’s a nightmarish scenario: A Republican appears to be within striking distance of capturing the Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy.
Massachusetts hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. But some polls show that Scott Brown, a state senator, is gaining on his Democratic rival, state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley, in Tuesday’s special election to replace the “liberal lion” of the Senate.
The contest has become close enough to make Democratic officials in Washington nervous. The party and labor unions funneled more than $1 million into the state just this week to support Coakley, and Democratic standard-bearers such as former President Clinton and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) are set to campaign for her.
More than the party’s pride is on the line. A loss would deprive Senate Democrats of their 60-vote supermajority and hand Republicans the ability to filibuster legislation. Brown has been telling voters that he would be the “41st vote” against the massive healthcare overhaul now before Congress, giving Republicans enough muscle to block it.
If Brown were to pull off an upset, it is possible that state officials would not certify the victory in time for him to affect the healthcare debate, unless that slips into next month.
Still, the race is showing that anti-Democratic feelings are strong, even in a state known for electing liberals. That is adding to party fears that Democrats will face large losses in congressional elections in November.
“If Martha Coakley is in trouble in Massachusetts in a Senate race, every Democrat in the country is in trouble,” said James Boyce, a Boston-based Democratic political consultant.
Brown surprised observers by raising more than $1 million in a single day this week when conservatives nationwide, inspired by his pledge to derail the healthcare bill, poured money into his campaign.
“It’s throughout the country,” Brown said Wednesday in an interview on Fox News. “People are fed up with the way business is being done in Washington.”
Brown’s fundraising and his success in the polls -- some have the margin as close as a few points -- grabbed the attention of the Democratic National Committee, which has dispatched operatives to Massachusetts to help Coakley.
The AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union have launched ad blitzes supporting Coakley and are running phone banks to urge Democrats to go to the polls Tuesday. A major factor in any special election is turnout, and Democrats fear Republicans will be more motivated to vote.
Ron Kaufman, a veteran GOP political operative from Massachusetts who is advising Brown’s campaign, said that disillusionment with Washington crosses party lines.
“The electorate is not quite as liberal as people make it out to be,” Kaufman said. “And they’re angry. They like [President] Obama still, but they’re angry. They’re angry about healthcare.”
Brown has fashioned himself as a populist who travels the state in a weather-beaten pickup, listening to voters. But he has had his struggles too, including trying to explain why he opposes the healthcare bill when, as a state senator, he voted in favor of a similar state overhaul in 2006.
Coakley has taken a page from the 2008 election playbook, attempting to connect Brown to former President George W. Bush’s economic policies.
Kennedy held the seat for nearly 47 years until his death in August. His interim replacement, Paul G. Kirk Jr., has said he will support the healthcare bill when it comes up for a final vote in the Senate, expected in a couple of weeks. Coakley also supports the legislation.
If Brown were to win Tuesday, it would spark a firestorm over whether he should be seated immediately. Senate rules require that the election result be certified by the state’s secretary of state, which could take two weeks.
If faced with such a deadline, it is conceivable that the Senate would rush to vote on the health bill before Brown could be sworn in. A Senate leadership aide said Wednesday that no such plans were currently being considered.