All Eyes on Mass. Senate Race

Washington Matters

All Eyes on Mass. Senate Race

Both parties are hoping for a Massachusetts miracle in a special election with huge national implications.

In a few hours, we’ll know the result of the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. And we’ll get a major verdict on the first year of the Obama administration.

Don’t expect a landslide, although whichever party wins will claim one, with an eye to influencing the congressional midterm elections in November.

Already, Democrats have suffered a severe blow in Massachusetts. What should have been an easy win has turned into a hard-fought race between state Attorney General Martha Coakley, D, and state Sen. Scott Brown, R. What only a few weeks ago was considered a foregone conclusion -- a swift Democratic replacement to fill Kennedy’s seat -- is now very much in doubt. Wrapped in that doubt is the fate of President Obama’s legislative agenda.

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Much of the anxiety and anticipation is about the math. For Democrats to pass major legislation of any kind, they need 60 votes in the Senate, the number needed to break minority party opposition in partisan showdowns that are now routine. They have that supermajority now but with none to spare. Losing even one vote may mean a complete stall for the president’s party, whether in health care, climate change, financial services reform or anything else, even routine judicial and other nominees. A Republican win today would fill the GOP sails and demonstrate that they have a voice and an ability to apply brakes. That’s why the Obama White House is on pins and needles about Massachusetts.


A Bellwether? Either way, yes.

State Sen. Brown, a self-described “independent Republican,” has been lifted by economic uncertainty and voter anxiety in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Although little known only weeks ago, Brown has gained altitude with frustrated voters, especially independents and moderates. He’s also helped by an out-of-state fundraising waterfall that is entirely uncommon in special elections. Just making this election close in near-sacred liberal territory like Massachusetts guarantees Brown and Republicans will strike a chord. Whether Brown wins or just comes close in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one, Republicans will have made a strong statement today.

If Coakley wins, it may be on a wing and a prayer in what in other years would be a cinch for a Democrat of her stature and resume plus financial backing and political support. In a very short special election campaign, she has often come off flat footed and unengaged. Too much was taken for granted in the expectation of a Democratic cake-walk in the home of Kennedy. If Coakley does pull it out, it won’t be by the margin originally assumed and banked upon by the Democratic Party chiefs in Boston and Washington. If barely a winner, she would arrive in the Senate bruised and with a warning flag for Democrats that reflects the anxiety and pulse of 2010 voters.

Whatever the election result tonight, another political result is certain. The Obama White House and the Democratic congressional leadership will be forced to take notice of the shifted wind. Massachusetts will be a thermometer reading that can’t be ignored.