One sign Democrats may be nervous: They are trying to nationalize the election, tying Republican Brown with Bush & Co.
Just the fact that we're asking this question means that something — we're not exactly sure what, but something — is going on in Massachusetts, where on Tuesday voters will be filling the Senate seat held nearly 47 years by Ted Kennedy until his death last August.
On paper. Now, that's a weird way to start a sentence about campaigns. But "on paper," this should be a Democratic slam dunk. Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the Bay State. No Republican has won a Senate seat here since 1972. The entire 12-person congressional delegation is comprised of Democrats. Of the 40 state Senate seats, 35 are held by Democrats. The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, is well known to the voters, having run and won statewide four years ago. She was a convincing victor against three rivals in last month's Democratic primary.
But something — again, we're not exactly sure what, but something — has happened since the Dec. 8 primary. For one thing, Coakley seems to have spent the interim period coasting, if not napping, perhaps assured by everyone that she was a shoo-in. She is also, to be charitable, not the world's most dynamic candidate. (New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote today that Coakley "is the kind of candidate who reminds you that the state that gave birth to John Kennedy also produced Michael Dukakis.")
At the same time, the Republican candidate, the previously unheard of state Sen. Scott Brown, has been an energetic campaigner. There is no hand he won't shake, no factory he won't visit, no diner where he won't schmooze.
His efforts may or may not pay off. The uncertainty comes because there is no unanimity among the various polls. The Boston Globe had Coakley up 15 points last Sunday, but many insiders said no way is it that one-sided. On the other hand, the Rasmussen poll — whose robo-telephone call approach has been dismissed by many in the industry — has had it much closer. Earlier this month it had Coakley ahead, 50-41 percent; now it's at 49-47, a dead heat. More significantly, it had Brown leading among non-affiliated voters — "independents," as we call them — by more than 2-to-1. As in many states, independents comprise the largest voting bloc in Mass.
This afternoon, political analysts Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both rated it a "tossup."
One cannot overstate the importance of this election. Sure, it's the only game in town, and the political media love to focus all its attention on special, stand-alone elections; think NY 23. But it's more than that.
No matter what happens, the Democrats will continue to have a majority in the Senate. But a Coakley defeat would rob the Dems of 60 Senate votes. And, as we know, you need 60 votes to get anything accomplished in the Senate — including, and especially, health care. Brown says he will vote to defeat the current health-care overhaul legislation that the Obama administration desperately wants passed. If there is anything that could speed up the Dems' timetable on a final vote, it's the prospect of Scott Brown winning.
Of course, there also remains the possibility — um, likelihood? — that should Brown win, there will be a long time until he's sworn in ... at least until the Democrats can complete action on health care. ("Hey, we're still waiting for those overseas ballots from Newton!") Paul Kirk, the Democrat who holds the Senate seat as an interim appointee, says that even if Brown wins, he will vote in favor of the bill. That he will vote yes is not a surprise; that he raised the spectre of a Brown victory was.
And so, with the perception of this becoming close, the Democrats got their wakeup call. It may be what they needed. National Democrats have sent in money and manpower. The DSCC is up with a new ad, reminding voters of Brown's views on abortion and health care, and attempting to tie him in with Bush, Cheney & Rove. Bill Clinton is coming in to rally the troops for Coakley tomorrow.
For his part, Brown says he's a "new kind of Republican," working to moderate his previously more-conservative views. Again, on paper, someone with such a conservative voting record should not be able to win statewide in Massachusetts, which Barack Obama carried with 62 percent of the vote.
But ideology may not be the driving force here; it seems to be part personality, but also partly a sour mood with what's going on in the country. Massachusetts is not about to become a red state. But a close vote here could set off alarm bells ... and bolster the national hopes of Republicans who are already looking at November with eager anticipation.
The ambiguity of the polls have made both sides step up their activity. Shortly after the first Rasmussen poll came out, Tea Party folks from around the country saw this as proof Brown could win; the more recent results led them to begin stuffing envelopes with cash and sending them his way. And while Democrats are almost to a person dismissive of the Rasmussen numbers, Sen. John Kerry cited them in a recent fundraising letter as a reason why Democrats should contribute to Coakley:
This is our wake-up call. Polls in Massachusetts are tightening, and one even shows a dead heat. ...
The far right has launched a massive online fundraising effort, and Brown's allies are blanketing Massachusetts with anonymously funded, shadowy attack ads by outside groups. Sound familiar?
It's time to stand with Martha Coakley. Your donation now could make the difference. Election Day is in one week. Can you step up?
Do I think Coakley will lose? No. Could she lose? Yes.