Dispatch from Massachusetts: Political Stakes High in Tuesday’s Special Election


I got a call from Barack Obama yesterday afternoon, so I knew something was up. True, it was a robo-call, and every other Democrat in Massachusetts most likely got one. Still, it was a rare occurance, because usually nobody is interested in my vote unless it is a primary or a local election.

Here in the Bay State, where even the dogs and cats are Democrats, our votes are taken for granted. It is true that we had several moderate Republican governors before our current Democratic one, Deval Patrick, was elected. I have always thought that was because even Democrats know that there is a high rascal factor in our state politics, and a moderate Republican governor reassured us that the henhouse wasn’t entirely under the watch of the foxes.

Then last night I got a call from an old dear high school friend from New Jersey imploring me and my family to be sure to vote in Tuesday’s special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy last year.

I voted in the special Democratic primary awhile back, and had assumed that the winner, state Attorney General Martha Coakley (photo: above left), was the heir presumptive, this being Massachusetts. That was “the conventional wisdom.” But apparently too many people, perhaps including the candidate, thought this, and now it looks like her opponent, State Senator Scott Brown, has closed the gap and the polls are saying the race is too close to call.

This is a dramatic development and has Democrats in a state of high anxiety. Bill Clinton is already here campaigning for Coakley, and the President is coming tomorrow (after earlier saying he wasn’t.)

The stakes are pretty high for Democrats, not just here in the Bay State (we call it that so we don’t have to keep typing in Massachusetts, which nobody really knows how to spell.) First of all, Scott Brown is not a moderate Republican like former governors Bill Weld or Jane Swift, or even Mitt Romney, who didn’t get in touch with his conservative inner child until he ran for President.

Brown is an unabashed conservative, pro-life, anti-taxes, and, most decisively for national politics, anti-health care reform. He has vowed to vote down the current health care bill, and, if he wins, he takes away the Democrats’ 60 votes they need to pass the thing. Now the bill will be far from perfect, but it is better than nothing, and nothing would be a blow for the country and a real defeat for the Obama administration. It is possible that the failure of this bill would mean we’d go another generation with our immoral and inefficient health care system, which would be, quite literally, a shame.

A Brown win could also be interpreted as a changing of the political winds, putting the fear into some of the wavering Democrats that aren’t too excited by the health care bill anyway, and maybe encouraging other vulnerable Democrats in unsafe seats to retire.

The great irony of it all is that if Brown wins and Coakley loses, the seat of Ted Kennedy, the iconic “Lion of the Senate” will become the vote that brings down health care reform.  That would be sad.

Special elections are funny things. With nothing else on the ballot they have low turn-outs and can be swung by the zealous and the angry. Brown has channeled populist anger at the banking bailouts, and has galvanized a coalition made up of the few remaining reasonable Republican party loyalists with an assortment of Tea Partiers and other “were mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” types, all fired up by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and talk radio. It’s not pretty.

So it all depends on who turns out to vote on Tuesday. Coakley should beat Brown in Massachusetts, but then again, the New England Patriots were supposed to beat the Ravens in Foxboro last weekend in the playoffs. So stay tuned.

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