If Massachusetts, that bluest of blue states, goes Republican, say goodbye (or good riddance) to health-care reform and any chance that the Democrats will be able to pass much of anything in the Senate. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold will struggle to overcome a filibuster just to get National Cheese Week proclaimed.
The special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat should have been a day at the beach for Democrat Martha Coakley in a state so overwhelmingly Democratic that no Republican has won a Senate election since 1972. Until a month ago, Coakley, the state’s attorney general, led Republican state senator Scott Brown by 30 percentage points, though not because of a good campaign or a gripping profile.
As attorney general, she prosecuted the craven Big Dig contractors, ex-priest Paul Shanley for child molestation and a couple of high-profile murders. Less admirable was her role in the most ridiculous of the Satanic-day-care-center cases rampant in the 1980s. As Middlesex district attorney, she kept Gerald Amirault in jail despite the conclusion of almost everyone else involved that the evidence he’d raped a toddler with a butcher knife was entirely made up by children pressured by interrogators. She was finally overruled in 2004.
Coakley doesn’t have a bad personality, just no personality. She’s up against the telegenic Brown, who once posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine and has a daughter who competed on “American Idol.” Coakley ran a safe Rose Garden campaign, without benefit of a Rose Garden, in a place where people expect to press a little candidate flesh. Instead she met with politicians, held closed-door fundraisers out of state and ran ads. Her first negative 30-second spot fell flat when she misspelled her home state as “Massachusettes.”
Airbrushing the Red
Meanwhile, Brown tooled around the state in a pickup truck airbrushing his red past for a blue electorate, less pro-life and more pro-gay, and claiming that he barely knew who the Tea Partiers were, until a picture showed up of him in their company.
It doesn’t matter who the inoffensive Brown is. He has one plank in his platform, health care, and his blunt assessment -- “It kinda stinks” -- has reverberated around the state: He would provide the 41st vote Republicans need to kill the legislation.
Coakley’s performance at the last debate shows why she campaigned in a cocoon. Hours after one of the CIA operatives killed in the suicide bombing at American headquarters in Kabul was buried in nearby Bolton, Coakley said there were no more terrorists in Afghanistan. She was snarky without being effective.
‘The People’s Seat’
Brown buried her when he put to rest the idea that a Republican victory would sully Kennedy’s seat: “This is not Ted Kennedy’s seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat.” By the end of the evening, Brown had raised $1.3 million via the Internet.
A Suffolk University poll released on Jan. 14 had Brown moving ahead of Coakley, 50 percent to 46 percent.
The next day, Brown imported former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- other Republicans such as Mitt Romney and John McCain were not invited, presumably because they are too, too Republican for Brown’s purposes -- and Coakley brought in former President Bill Clinton. Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow, cut an ad. President Barack Obama sent a video reminding voters that health care was at stake, then made a campaign stop for Coakley.
Brown may have peaked too soon, waking up complacent Democrats in time to get to the polls. But Coakley may not have to lose for Obama to lose moderate Democrats. A handful will surely find their inner Joe Lieberman. Obama could give Nebraska residents free Medicaid, Medicare and individual trips to Disneyland and still not keep Senator Ben Nelson’s health-care vote.
Worry in Arkansas
Senator Blanche Lincoln was already a nervous wreck. If a Kennedy-endorsed candidate can lose in Massachusetts over health care, what could the voters of Arkansas do to her?
Emboldened by his success, Brown began leaning right, which might stall his big mo’. Two proposals he supported as a lawmaker -- mandatory insurance and a cap-and-trade program to cut global warming -- he recently rejected. After running from Bush-Cheney, he spoke approvingly of waterboarding. After being a man of the people, he came out against Obama’s proposal to tax banks to recover part of the bailout.
Democratic Governor Jon Corzine’s loss in New Jersey, and Republican Bob McDonnell’s win in Virginia, were spun as huge defeats for Obama’s agenda even though they turned on more parochial issues.
If Brown should win today’s special election, you can believe the most extreme analysis on the craziest cable show. In Massachusetts, voters saw what Obama is doing and went out to stop it.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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