Just saying it out loud sounds crazy: The political world is focusing on a Senate race in Massachusetts.
Yes, that Massachusetts. The one that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972 — ironically, the same year in which it was the only state in the nation to buck the Nixon tide. A state that has had an all-Democratic congressional delegation since 1997. The Senate seat at stake in Tuesday's special election has been in Democratic hands since 1953.
And yet, a new Suffolk University poll has the Republican candidate, state Sen. Scott Brown, slightly ahead of the Democrat, state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Brown 50, Coakley 46. Yes, it's a statistical tie. But it's nowhere near what the Boston Globe showed on Sunday, when it had Coakley up by 15 points.
David Peleologos, the poll's director, spelled it out:
Although the results show a race within the statistical margin of error, Scott Brown has surged dramatically. He is attracting independent support by a wide margin and even winning some Democrats who won't vote the party line this time.
And here are some of the findings:
Among men, Brown led Coakley 55 percent to 41 percent but trailed among women 50 percent to 45 percent.
Seventy-eight percent of registered Democrats preferred Coakley, while 91 percent of registered Republicans and 65 percent of independents favored Brown.
Brown led in most areas of the state, except Suffolk County, where Coakley crushed Brown 69 percent to 31 percent.
Brown (57 percent favorable to 19 percent unfavorable) was viewed more positively than Coakley (49 percent favorable to 41 percent unfavorable).
A third candidate in the race, an independent conveniently named Joe Kennedy, received three percent in the Suffolk poll. His politics is more Tea Party/libertarian than anything else, but he is after all named Kennedy (no relation to those Kennedys, however.) Lots of guessing on who gets hurt more by his presence; my guess is he takes more from Brown than Coakley. We're talking about only a few points here, but in a close race, every vote counts ... to coin a phrase.
We can talk all day about reasons why the race is suddenly so close. Brown is a better campaigner. (SUNDAY, JAN. 17 UPDATE: See note at bottom of this post.) Coakley sleepwalked the past month. The real point is this: Coakley supports the health-care bill currently in Congress. Brown would vote no. If Brown wins, he gives the GOP 41 votes in the Senate — enough to block the Democrats from passing the bill. Republicans say that the public's antipathy for the Democrats' bill is what's spurring Brown's rise and potential lead. If true, that sends a shiver down the neck of every Democrat running for Congress this year.
Perhaps the fear of a Brown victory might be the spark that gets congressional Democrats on the same page on health care? Paul Kirk (D), the interim senator appointed shortly after Sen. Edward Kennedy died last summer, has said that even if Brown wins, he will vote for the bill.
Former President Bill Clinton is in the state today, campaigning for Coakley, alongside Sen. John Kerry, just back from hip-replacement surgery. President Obama, wary of putting his prestige on the line, was content to send a Web video e-mail on her behalf.
But that may not have been enough. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley confirms that Obama will head to the Bay State on Sunday to campaign for Coakley.
For the longest time, the administration was torn about whether the president should go. We've been told over and over that presidents, especially ones who are not on the ballot, don't have coattails, and we saw that last fall in Virginia and New Jersey. Whether it was justified or not, the respective defeats of Creigh Deeds and Gov. Jon Corzine were interpreted by some as a reflection on Obama's job performance.
But as the momentum seemed to be shifting in Brown's direction, more pressure was being placed on the White House. What if Obama showed up and Coakley loses anyway? What would that say about the prospects for health care, or the future of his presidency? And if the Democrats can't hold onto a Senate seat in Massachusetts, what are their prospects elsewhere?
Apparently the White House felt too much was at stake for Obama to sit it out. The president would have been second-guessed no matter what he decided.
Oh, the last time a Massachusetts Republican took a Senate seat away from the Democrats? 1946.
UPDATE: On NPR's Weekend Edition on Sunday, Jan. 17, I said that Coakley was not a good "candidate." Clearly, I meant to say she was not a good "campaigner," at least compared to Brown. I know better than to mistakenly imply the two words are interchangable. I regret the error.