By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
In the first contest of 2010, the question shouldn't be whether Democrats will win but by how much. On Tuesday, Massachusetts voters will select the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's successor. Martha Coakley, the Bay State's attorney general and the Democratic nominee, was until very recently the prohibitive favorite over GOP nominee Scott Brown, a state senator. Not only had Coakley raised $5.2 million to Brown's $1.2 million (his fundraising has increased dramatically with the new national attention), but Massachusetts is about as reliably Democratic as they come.
The race was supposed to be a yawner but has become the focus of the political world as recent polls have shown it to be a nail-biter: Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, reported over the weekend that Brown had a 48-47 lead, while a Rasmussen poll released today had Coakley ahead by a mere two points, 49-47--a virtual tie, as it is within the 3 percent margin of error. As recently as last month, political guru Stuart Rothenberg wrote that, "If Brown can crack the 40 percent mark against Coakley, it would be noteworthy," political guru Stu Rothenberg wrote last month. Tuesday Rothenberg moved the Massachusetts senate into the " narrow advantage" for Democrats column on his report.
As I reported last week, the liberal group MoveOn.org started fundraising for Coakley, warning its members that "progressive hero Ted Kennedy's senate seat--and with it any hope for passing majori progressive legislation this year" were in danger. I wrote then that , "a telling sign of serious tightening would be either of the national parties moving late money into the race." Well this week the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee bought more than $500,000 in television ads in a race that under normal circumstances would not require a national Democratic dime. In addition, the Service Employees International Union is pouring $685,000 into the race.
As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza observes today, the race has become a good preview of the campaign themes the two parties may trot out in other races this fall, with Democrats trying to use the specter of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin to tar their GOP opponents and Republicans harping on change. Cillizza writes:
If Brown manages to win, expect Democrats to quickly dismiss the loss as an outlier due to Coakley's substandard campaign. But, privately, something close to panic may well set in if the alleged ace in the hole--linking Republicans to the Bush administration and/or Palin--doesn't come through in a state as strongly favorable to their party as Massachusetts and in a political environment that is tilting away from them on the issues of the day.
Republicans believe that Brown's candidacy is already a blueprint for how they can be competitive almost anywhere in the country in November and so, regardless of whether Brown wins or loses next Tuesday, you can expect a heavy dose of the sort of independent/status quo shakeup messages that Brown has ridden to something close to a dead heat in Massachusetts.
Given that even a narrow Coakley win will be decried as a loss for Democrats, it's hard to see much good news coming to them next Tuesday.