Big turnout for crucial Massachusetts Senate election

Massachusetts voters went to the polls in droves today -- despite a cold, pelting rain -- to cast their ballots in a U.S. Senate contest with national implications that was expected to go down to the wire.

Estimates placed voter turnout between 40% and 55% of registered voters, a stunningly high total for a special election. A winner was not likely to be announced for several hours after the polls closed.

“This will be a record,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin.

Normally, a large turnout in this overwhelmingly Democratic state would favor Martha Coakley, the Democrat seeking to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. But polls had Coakley trailing Republican Scott Brown in the days leading up to the election. According to political observers, Brown’s candidacy sparked more enthusiasm among the electorate, including many Democrats.

A victory by Brown would give the GOP a crucial 41st vote in the Senate, allowing Republicans to filibuster any piece of legislation. Brown, a Massachusetts state senator, ran on a pledge to help block the massive healthcare overhaul now in its final stages in Congress.

Galvin said that he planned to declare an unofficial winner as quickly as possible, but Senate rules require the victor be certified by the state before he or she can be sworn in. Brown has charged that Democrats on Capitol Hill would stall that process as long as possible to allow Massachusetts’ interim senator, Paul G. Kirk Jr., to cast a vote in favor of the healthcare bill.

“I am going to do everything that I can to give the winner, whoever that winner is, the credentials they need as soon as possible,” Galvin said.

Coakley’s campaign, which held a news conference featuring Marc Elias, charged that Brown supporters had been handing out pre-marked ballots to voters at polling places today. Elias is the lawyer who masterminded the extended recount in Minnesota that propelled Democrat Al Franken to the Senate.

Brown’s campaign dismissed the allegation as political gamesmanship.

While the Democratic infrastructure in Massachusetts was expected to help drive Coakley voters to the polls, party sources said that they were surprised at the number of Brown backers, especially in polling places outside Boston.

Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and months ago there was little reason to believe the party would be any more successful today. Democrats control every statewide elected office and the 12-member congressional delegation, and hold majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

Among voters, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, although the ranks of those not affiliated with the two major political parties make up a majority of the electorate. It was those angry independents, along with disaffected Democrats, who turned a supposed cakewalk for Coakley into a cliffhanger.

Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is extremely unpopular in the state, and a series of corruption scandals has tainted party members on Beacon Hill, home to the Massachusetts Statehouse. Brown repeatedly tied Coakley to the state’s Democratic leaders.

“This is not about her or him,” said Raymond La Raja, an expert on Massachusetts politics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “This is something larger.”