Obama Massachusetts Campaign Swing Could Backfire, Help Brown

Even if Republican wins, he might not get his Senate seat in time for the healthcare vote.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The special election to fill the seat left vacant when Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy shuffled off his mortal coil is coming down to the wire. In a state not known for competitive contests, Republican State Sen. Scott Brown is giving Democrat Attorney General Martha Coakley more than a run for her money.

• A one-day poll conducted for Pajamas Media of nearly 1,000 likely Massachusetts voters out Friday showed Brown ahead by an amazing 15 points, well outside the slightly better than three percent margin of error.

• Suffolk University has Brown up by four--50 percent to 46 percent--in its Thursday poll of 500 registered voters.

• Monday's poll of 1,000 likely voters by Scott Rasmussen had Coakley up by two but, importantly, under 50.

Pollster.com now has the average at 50.3 percent for Brown and Coakley at 46.8 percen, with almost all the late polls show Brown gaining and Coakley fading. Even the Democratic Blue Mass Group/Research 2000 poll of January 13, which shows Coakley leading 49 to 41 among 500 likely voters surveyed over two days, has Brown winning half the independents versus 39 percent for Coakley. 

The poll numbers are now driving the race, with the GOP cautiously optimistic and the Democrats already looking around for someone to blame if Coakley loses. Both sides are ratcheting up their activity, with Brown reportedly raising nearly $4 million over four days via the Internet and Coakley rolling out the big guns, including President Barack Obama—who heads there Sunday—and the senator's widow Victoria who, in an effort to personalize the race and win it for the Democrats, is asking people to go to the polls to honor the work and memory of her late husband.

Whether Obama is a help or a hindrance at this stage is anyone's guess. The most important consideration in the race now is just how the support each candidate is showing in the available polling data will translate into voters showing up at the polls.

Karl Rove, the political consultant who served as deputy chief of staff in the Bush White House, observed earlier this week that "All of the polls show Republicans significantly more energized than Democrats and more likely to vote next week in what is likely to be a low turnout election. In this respect, the Massachusetts special election may resemble last fall's New Jersey gubernatorial race, where Republican Chris Christie, buoyed by an energized Republican base, pulled out a late victory over Gov. Jon Corzine in a heavily Democratic state."

What Rove fails to mention is that a last-minute campaign visit by Obama to New Jersey, if it moved voters at all, moved them away from Corzine. By going to Massachusetts, Obama may again encourage those who disapprove of the job he is doing as president to go to the polls and send him a message while doing little to improve turnout on behalf of the Democrat.

The stakes in this race are high, higher than usually is the case in a special election. That's because both the GOP and the Democrats realize the addition of just one Republican to the ranks of the U.S. Senate would deprive Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of his filibuster proof 60-vote majority and that, in turn, could derail the healthcare bill. But that's only if Brown is seated before the critical final cloture vote—and that's a pretty big if.

What is going on in Massachusetts—the bluest of the blue states—has a lot to do with what is happening in Washington. The strong support Brown is showing among independents is a direct reflection of their unhappiness with the one-sided way in which the healthcare debate has unfolded, the latest example of that being Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's determination that the final version of the healthcare bill be the product of backroom negotiations rather than open debate. And that has led to the transference of the electoral energy shown across the country by the tea party movement into active support for Brown.

It may, however, not be all sunshine and flowers for the GOP, especially if seating Brown becomes the last opportunity the Republicans have to stop the healthcare bill.

William Galvin, who as Massachusetts' secretary of state is the official in charge of certifying the election results, made the papers recently when he reminded folks that state law requires town and city clerks to wait at least 10 days for absentee ballots to arrive before they can certify the local results and that they have to wait five more days to file the returns with his office. This means Brown, even if he wins a clear victory, will not be seated right away, in sharp contrast to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's rush to swear in two new Democrats elected just before the House voted on the healthcare bill last fall.

Another problem the GOP faces in its race against the clock is the issue of a clean victory. The statutory timetable Galvin outlined assumes everything else goes smoothly and that no one challenges the election results in court. As the Wall Street Journal's John Fund has pointed out on more than one occasion, the provisions of the Help America Vote Act and other election law reforms enacted after 2000's presidential long count facilitate the bringing of suits that challenge election results, especially when plaintiffs are willing to claim someone was disenfranchised.

Any delay may help Reid and Pelosi get a healthcare bill to President Barack Obama's desk if Reid's 60-vote coalition holds together, something that is not at all certain at this point. But delay, while a potential political ally, is not necessarily a long-term friend.

There is a downside, one that should be obvious to the Democrats but which may be obscured by the heat and smoke of the healthcare battle: Any effort to keep Brown out of the Senate if he is the winner next Tuesday will look, especially to the independents who are deserting the Democrats in droves, like cheating. And that would have profoundly negative consequences for the party in November. 

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