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Senate race in Massachusetts comes down to wire

Turnout will be key for Tuesday's special election to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat. Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley crisscross the state for support.

January 19, 2010|By James Oliphant
  • Democratic state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley went from heavy favorite to underdog within weeks. “SheÂ’s created challengers for” other Democratic candidates, said one analyst, “challengers with money and a game plan.”
Democratic state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley went from heavy favorite to… (Elise Amendola / Associated…)

Reporting from Boston — In the final moments of a U.S. Senate race that was never expected to be close, Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley crisscrossed Massachusetts on Monday, a day before an election that could alter the fortunes of both major political parties.

At stake is the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority, key to advancing President Obama's agenda. For Republicans, the race offers a chance to demonstrate that the party has rebounded from its catastrophic losses in 2008.

The race to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has become a national contest, with outside money and support pouring into the state and the candidates clashing over issues such as healthcare and national security.

Because the victor will be serving out Kennedy's term, he or she will need to run for reelection in 2012.

Coakley, the state attorney general, has been transformed in a matter of weeks from heavy favorite to underdog. She has responded with a furious wave of TV ads attacking Brown, a GOP state senator, and has been backed by Democratic luminaries such as Obama and President Clinton.

Her campaign aired a new TV ad Monday featuring Obama, who visited Boston on Sunday in an effort to spur Democratic turnout. But new polls suggested that she faced an uphill battle and that Brown had seized the momentum with a relentless anti-Washington, anti-incumbent message.

Brown appeared in position to become the first Massachusetts Republican elected to the Senate in nearly 40 years, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans here 3 to 1. He has appealed to moderate Democrats and independents, pledging to block the congressional healthcare bill by providing Senate Republicans with the 41st vote needed to sustain a filibuster.

Democrats hold 58 seats, including Paul G. Kirk, who was appointed to fill Kennedy's seat temporarily. Enlisting two independents, Democrats can muster the minimum 60 votes required to cut off debate. Brown's election would destroy that dynamic.

Early Monday afternoon, Brown shook hands with supporters outside Boston's TD Banknorth Garden sports arena. Kat Malone, 22, of Charlestown, said she was voting for him because of the healthcare bill. "I think it's a bad thing for the country," she said. "I like to buy my health insurance. I also don't want my taxes to go up."

Later in the day, hundreds of Coakley supporters filled a union hall in Dorchester, some working the phones to persuade voters to come out for their candidate.

Jugo Kapetanovich, 24, a volunteer from Bethesda, Md., said he spent the day knocking on doors. "I don't think a lot of people realized how close this race was," he said. "We're trying to make people aware of the urgency of the situation."

Snow and rain were forecast for election day, after an icy, wind-swept Monday.

Voter turnout, typically low in a special election, "is going to be much higher than everybody thought," said Raymond La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

But La Raja said that regardless of the result, "the damage is done" for Democrats. "Every Democrat in the country should be upset with Martha Coakley. She's created challengers for all of them, challengers with money and a game plan."

In another election year, Coakley would have been unbeatable, with her law-and-order background and track record as a consumer advocate. She crushed her opponent in the 2006 attorney general race with 73% of the vote, and handily won the Senate Democratic primary late last year.

But this campaign, Brown capitalized on voters' discontent over the healthcare bill, government spending and the economy.

"Massachusetts is hurting like everyplace else," said Jeffrey Berry, an expert on state politics at Tufts University. "He's run a terrific campaign. He's made moderate voters look past his very conservative views. He's very much in lock-step with national Republicans."

Many voters don't view Brown as a hard-line partisan.

Alycia Torres, 31, of Boston, says he would bring "independent thinking" to the Senate. "Coakley's too locked into the party," she said.

But Brown isn't shy about highlighting conservative positions. In a recent debate, he said he favored waterboarding in some cases to extract information from suspected terrorists. He opposed Obama's suggestion that large banks and insurance companies be taxed to recoup federal bailout funds. He opposes same-sex marriage and supports limits on abortion rights, including waiting periods and parental notification. He pledges to torpedo the healthcare bill, although he voted in favor of Massachusetts' healthcare initiative four years ago.

In speeches, however, Brown rarely evokes standard Republican themes or even refers to himself as a Republican.

"He's done a smart job of not linking himself with the national party," La Raja said.

Coakley has attempted to make that link for him, to keep moderate Democrats in her camp.

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