A month ago even most political junkies – at least outside Massachusetts – would have been hard-pressed to name the Democratic and Republican candidates in tomorrow’s special election for U.S. Senate. In that Bluest of Blue states, which hasn’t had a Republican senator in 32 years and has no Republican House members, it was a foregone conclusion that Martha Coakley was going to win in a walk. She was 30 points ahead. Ho hum.
But Coakley obviously believed she was a shoe-in and at first ran a lackluster, minimal, take-no-risks campaign. She even took a week off to celebrate the holidays. And when she was campaigning, she made gaffe after gaffe. She said that Curt Schilling is a Yankees fan; dissed Fenway Park; said Catholics (48.2 percent of the electorate in Massachusetts) shouldn’t work in emergency rooms because, in effect, Church teachings on abortion conflict with the liberal gospel; and said that “we need to get taxes up.” Her opponent, Scott Brown, has run a smart, effective campaign and seems to have pitch-perfect political instincts. His “it’s the people’s seat” was the best sound bite to come out of a debate in years.
Suddenly what had been a sure thing became competitive, and the national parties and political activists across the country awoke to what was at stake. Scott Brown’s election would end the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. More, the election quickly became perceived as a referendum on the increasingly unpopular ObamaCare and on President Obama, himself. It became clear that a Brown win would be interpreted as a rebuke to the President and almost certainly mean the end of ObamaCare in anything like its present form. It would make Democrats in Congress, especially those in competitive seats, far more reluctant to vote in ways that might be unpopular. It would induce some Democrats facing uphill campaigns next November to retire.
Republicans, watching Brown climb the polls, sensed a historic opportunity. Democrats, watching Coakley drop in the polls, sensed a disaster in the making. Resources, money, and people from around the country have poured into Massachusetts in the last two weeks. The news networks sent their heavy hitters to cover the election. Pundits covered the story like a rug. And Brown kept climbing. Coakley kept making mistakes like flying to Washington to collect money from lobbyists at a private cocktail party and saying she didn’t know anything about a member of her entourage roughing up a reporter, even though photographs showed her standing right there, watching it happen from five feet away.
Finally President Obama, who had had no plans to campaign personally, decided to put his own prestige on the line to salvage the situation. It was a big risk, as a loss for Coakley would now inescapably be seen as a rebuke to him. But he was in a damned-if-he-did-damned-if-he-didn’t situation. He and Coakley had a rally at Northeastern University. The hall wasn’t filled. Brown (and Curt Schilling) had a rally in Worchester. It was jammed. Hand-painted yard signs have sprung up all over the state for Brown, and the momentum seems to be all with him. Once down 30 points, he is now up from 4 to 11 points, although polling in this sort of election is very unreliable. Intrade, a prediction market that taps into the “wisdom of crowds,” had Coakley up 55-45 a few days ago but now has Brown up 64-37.
Six weeks ago, nobody cared. Now the entire political nation is awaiting the outcome of what might well be regarded as the most important and consequential by-election in American history.