Sometime last week, the breathless e-mails started. The urgent pleas to work the phone bank at Democratic National Committee headquarters. The desperate cries for donations. The stern warnings that any day now the sky just might fall.
Here’s a representative missive from MoveOn.org: “In 11 days, we could lose progressive hero Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat — and with it, any hope for passing major progressive legislation this year.” The subject line asked incredulously, “A Republican in Ted Kennedy’s seat?”
The idea seems absurd even by Chicken Little standards of mass fundraising appeals. Massachusetts is one of the most Democratic states in the nation. Republicans hold about a tenth of the state legislative seats and represent only a slightly larger percentage of the commonwealth’s registered voters. Barack Obama won Massachusetts — the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972 — by 26 points.
Massachusetts has no GOP statewide elected officials and hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Edward Brooke was last re-elected in 1972. The late, sainted Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat doesn’t seem like an auspicious opportunity to reverse that trend.
National Democrats are nevertheless a little worried about the Jan. 19 special election to fill out the remainder of Kennedy’s term. Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley cruised to a primary win based on her high name recognition and hoped to run out the clock on the way to the general. But that frontrunner strategy seems to have backfired as Republican state Sen. Scott Brown has gained momentum among independents — now a plurality of Bay State registered voters — who are angry at the way the Democrats have been running both Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.
With the Democratic base less than fully engaged, Republicans on fire, and independents unhappy with a mostly Democratic status quo, the race may have become surprisingly competitive. First, the evidence was anecdotal. Driving through the Greater Boston suburbs over Christmas, one could spot Brown signs among the glow-in-the-dark reindeer and snowmen dotting many a lawn. The closer to Brown’s senate district you got, the more his signs began to predominate — something you almost never saw with the the sacrificial lambs the GOP has run for Senate in recent cycles.
Then came two successive polling bombshells: Rasmussen released a poll that showed Brown within nine points of Coakley, trailing just 41 percent to 50 percent. Later, Public Policy Polling — a Democratic firm — showed the race a statistical dead heat, with Brown actually leading 48 percent to 47 percent. Soon, my inbox runneth over.
Even the Boston Globe survey — which doesn’t use the controversial automated polling methodology of the other two polls but does at least arguably oversample Democrats — showing Coakley clinging to a 15-point lead over Brown found the two candidates tied among the people most enthusiastic about the race. Special elections figure to be low-turnout and are notoriously hard to poll because it is difficult to know what the electorate will look like.
Unlike the recent GOP recruits for Senate in Massachusetts, Brown has a track record of winning elections. He won his first as assessor in the little Republican-leaning town of Wrentham in 1992, going on to serve on the Wrentham board of selectmen before begin elected state representative in 1998. Brown won his state senate seat in a special election in March 2004, replacing liberal Democrat Cheryl Jacques, and managed to win a full term as state senator even as native son John Kerry was carrying the state in that November’s presidential election.
In 2006, Brown further secured his hold on the seat by running for re-election unopposed — a rarity among Republicans in Massachusetts. While Obama fever was sweeping the commonwealth in 2008, Brown managed another term with 59 percent of the vote. A good-looking (he once posed as a centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine after winning its “America’s Sexiest Man” contest) and articulate candidate, Brown is one of the Massachusetts GOP’s few success stories in the past six years.
Even so, few observers gave Brown much of a chance to win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat when he announced he was going to run. By Massachusetts standards, he is a fairly conservative candidate. Although pro-choice, Brown opposes partial-birth abortion and favors other abortion restrictions. He has promised to be a 41st vote against the Democratic health care bill, considered a major part of Kennedy’s legacy. Brown is against same-sex marriage, for Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, and a supporter of the Iraq war — the last two unpopular stances, but ones where Brown has some credibility as a 30-year veteran of the National Guard and lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Brown has once again proved to be a clever campaigner. Handling the Kennedy legacy issue gingerly, he has run ads touting John F. Kennedy’s support for tax cuts. Brown has alternated between reaching out to Massachusetts’ beleaguered conservatives by hammering away at Coakley’s liberalism and also reassuring jittery moderates that he won’t automatically be “a filibuster senator.” Liberals aren’t buying his promises of moderation, however: they are already talking about delaying Brown’s certification should he win to keep him from blocking health care.
Contrasted with Coakley’s pedestrian campaign, it’s easy to see why Democrats and liberal activists are worried. But for a Republican to win in Massachusetts, even in a special election, everything has to break the right way. When Republicans won four consecutive gubernatorial races between Bill Weld’s election in 1990 and Mitt Romney’s victory in 2002, the GOP took nearly two-thirds of independents, 90 percent of Republicans, and a significant slice of Democrats. Only during Weld’s 1994 re-election did that translate into anything better than the low 50s.
Republicans who have run strong in some polls only to come up short on election day are more common. Ray Shamie against John Kerry in 1984, Jim Rappaport against Kerry in 1990, Romney against Kennedy in 1994, Weld against Kerry in 1996, Dan Grabauskas against Tim Cahill in 2002, Jim Ogonowski against Niki Tsongas in 2007: these are all cases where the Massachusetts GOP was able to break 40 percent but not able to clinch the win. All but the last two were Senate races.
Now Brown is also missing the element of surprise. Democrats were always unlikely to look past a candidate of his caliber. Polls showing him possibly competitive make this doubly unlikely — the statement accompanying the PPP survey was practically written as a wake-up call for Democratic get-out-the vote organizers.
Liberals are nevertheless right to feel nervous. If Brown won, it would actually be as damaging to their agenda as MoveOn.org’s fundraisers fear. Even if he runs well but ultimately loses, the popularity of the Obama agenda — already in question after the 2009 off-year elections — will have been tested even in the bluest of states.
A strong showing could also set Scott Brown up for a future run for statewide office, following the Romney precedent. After all, Deval Patrick isn’t looking too good and if Coakley wins the state will need a new attorney general.