Politics & Policy

Great Scott!

In Massachusetts, some pieces are coming together for Brown, but will it be enough?

To win Massachusetts’ special Senate election, Republican Scott Brown will need a perfect storm. The good news for him and his campaign — and for every conservative and spending-weary independent pulling for him — is that the Bay State is seeing a lot of wind and some very choppy seas. But there’s need for more before it hits perfect-storm territory. A look at the emerging political weather patterns:

 

GROGGY DEMOCRATS

Democrat Martha Coakley is not, on paper, a bad candidate. She has a solid résumé for a senatorial candidate, with three years as state attorney general (the first woman to serve in that office) and before that, eight years as district attorney in Middlesex County. She won a hard-fought primary, beating out Rep. Michael Capuano. Yet, a bit like recently defeated Democrats Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Jon Corzine in New Jersey, there’s a bit of a fog over what her campaign is about.

She’s a rather milquetoast public speaker and has some large gaps in her expertise: Asked about foreign affairs, she discussed visiting her sister overseas. Her campaign ads, so far, are strikingly generic, featuring forgettable pledges about fighting for families, with images and slogans that could fit just about any Democratic candidate. It’s likely that the final week will see her ratcheting up the advertising dramatically, but it’s striking that, with the filibuster and one of the all-time great upsets at stake, Coakley hasn’t yet managed to make much of a case about why it’s important she win this election.

Public Policy Polling all but pulled the fire alarm in an effort to wake up the campaign:

At this point a plurality of those planning to turn out oppose the health care bill. The massive enthusiasm gap we saw in Virginia is playing itself out in Massachusetts as well. Republican voters are fired up and they’re going to turn out. Martha Coakley needs to have a coherent message up on the air over the last ten days that her election is critical to health care passing and Ted Kennedy’s legacy — right now Democrats in the state are not feeling a sense of urgency. . . . This has become a losable race for Democrats — but it could also be easily winnable if Coakley gets her act together for the last week of the campaign. Complacency is the Democrats’ biggest enemy at this point and something that needs to be overcome to avoid a potential disaster.

PPP offered a doozy; they had Brown actually leading by a single percentage point. The same day, the Boston Globe’s poll showed Coakley with a much more reassuring lead of 15 percentage points. However, between these, Rasmussen’s earlier poll, and leaked numbers from a Democratic internal poll, Coakley has been consistently around 50 percent. She hasn’t blown the race, but could.

Brown is in the unusual spot where a poll showing him closing the gap may be counterproductive; it might get a lot of Democrats who were ignoring the election active in the final days. The campaign staffers around Coakley have good histories in mobilizing voters, and, in most years, finding Democratic voters in Massachusetts is roughly as difficult as finding beer in Ireland. But the early polling has to be supremely ominous for her team, and one has to wonder if appealing to party loyalty will work when voters dislike their Democratic governor (57 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing) and have seen a succession of Democratic state legislators taken away in handcuffs while a Democrat-controlled Congress and Democratic president have yet to mitigate a deep and hard recession. This seems like a good year and environment in which to run as an outsider, and it’s all but impossible to paint Coakley in those colors.

SWAYING INDEPENDENTS

Democrats have a massive registration advantage in the Bay State. But there are a lot of independent or unaffiliated voters.

“To win as a Republican in Massachusetts, you need to get the independent vote, and you have to cut into what we call ‘soft Democrats.’ And there, the message is resonating; these voters see him out there working hard,” says Brown’s campaign manager, Beth Lindstrom. Rasmussen put Brown’s favorable rating at 58 percent, suggesting that right now the opposition is limited to hardcore Democrats.

In New Jersey and Virginia this year, independents turned against the Democratic party with a vengeance. A similar shift is hard to picture in Massachusetts, but the possibility is in the cards: The state and nation seem to be in rough shape, and it’s tough to put much or any of that on Scott Brown’s shoulders.

THE END OF THE KENNEDY MYSTIQUE

If the Kennedy family hadn’t endorsed Coakley in a highly public manner, there would have been inevitable questions and murmurs. But despite the fond feelings for the late Senator Kennedy among many Massachusetts voters, it’s easy to wonder how many voters, if any, were waiting for the seal of approval from the senator’s widow, Vicki, or from former congressman Joseph Kennedy. The only Kennedy still in federal office is Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. The Kennedy name didn’t work for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland in a much better electoral environment.

Perhaps the final days of the campaign will see a lot of “Let’s win one for Teddy!” rallying cries; if there’s any state in the union in which that could work, it’s Massachusetts. But the fact that Kennedy was a Democrat and a Democrat is running for his seat is not exactly an obscure secret in the state’s current political environment. The other intriguing lesson of Coakley’s political sluggishness is that there is no other figure in Massachusetts politics whose endorsement might even remotely be decisive — not Gov. Deval Patrick, not Sen. John Kerry, nor anyone in the House delegation.

THE CANDIDATE

Scott Brown will make a fine senator, presuming he doesn’t collapse from exhaustion first. He says he’s been getting about four hours of sleep a night, starting his day at 4 or 5 a.m. and often going to bed past midnight. In between, his campaign keeps him on a relentless schedule of meeting voters, touring facilities, firing up volunteers at phone centers, and enduring a marathon of media interviews. His voice is starting to go.

“I don’t even care if Rasmussen has me up 20 or down 20, I always run like I’m down 30,” Brown said.

For more than a week, Coakley’s campaign conceded the airwaves, and it essentially went dormant during the December holidays. In most circumstances and against most opponents, that would not be a controversial move; voters have happier and more important matters on their minds than politics as Hannukah, Christmas, and New Year’s roll around. But it appears that Coakley’s team has underestimated Brown: His daughter, an American Idol contestant, sang the national anthem at the Boston College–Boston University hockey game . He’s been shaking hands relentlessly at local sporting events, like the National Hockey League’s recent Midwinter Classic at Fenway Park. His military service gives him a bipartisan, likeable sense of connection to voters who are not much interested in politics. Sources on his campaign say they’re seeing the strongest connection with the demographic they call “JFK Democrats.”

Brown could do everything right and still fall short. But at this point, it’s pretty clear that no one will argue after the election that he could have won if he had put in more effort.

All of the little indicators of energy and enthusiasm are breaking heavily for Brown: They’re running out of yard signs, and the turnout at volunteer meetings is larger than any Republican can remember.

MIDWINTER QUIRKS

There’s never been a Massachusetts special election for Senate before, so most observers think that traditional turnout projections are useless. It’s a strange time of year for an election, and Massachusetts is enduring a miserable cold snap, and snow and freezing temperatures on Election Day aren’t unthinkable; how many voters turn out on a day not fit for man nor beast? The angry and fired-up seem to be only the safe bets, and right now the polls and anecdotes suggest that Brown has a heavy advantage in “broken glass” voters — those who will crawl over broken glass to get to the polls. There is also a third-party candidate by the name of Joe Kennedy. Observers don’t think the famous name will be worth many votes, but, in a close-fought special election, who knows?

At one point in the campaign, it appeared Coakley could at least count on Browns chances being limited by a shortage of funds. That now looks much less likely to be a decisive factor. On Monday, a money bomb– a special online fundraising effort — brought Brown a cool million in new donations by mid-evening.

Barring a massive awakening among lethargic Democrats, Brown looks set to perform better than any Republican Senate candidate from Massachusetts in decades. The political earthquake on January 19 might not hit 10 on the Richter scale, but even a near miss on Brown’s part could send enormous aftershocks resonating across the country.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on National Review Online.

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