Democrats face loss of Kennedy seat, health care vote

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 - 11:41am

MASSACHUSETTES - Democrats face the possibility of losing their most iconic U.S. Senate seat, held for almost 47 years by the late Edward Kennedy, in a Massachusetts election today that could also cost them their 60-vote Senate supermajority needed to help pass a health-care overhaul.

In just more than a week, Democrat Martha Coakley, the state attorney general once considered a sure bet for the Senate, has watched her lead evaporate. Some polls show her trailing state Senator Scott Brown, who was more than 30 points behind last November.

Democrats are mobilized by the prospect of conceding a Senate seat in a state where they control all 10 House seats. President Barack Obama stumped for Coakley in a trip to Boston Sunday. He also cut a new television ad, while his grassroots organizing group says it placed 93,000 calls across the state on Jan. 16 alone.

“In some ways, Republicans have already won,” said Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “Nobody ever imagined a special election in Massachusetts for Ted Kennedy’s seat would ever get remotely competitive.”

Research “strongly suggests” that Brown, 50, will defeat Coakley, 56, the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report said. That outcome or even a narrow Coakley win could discourage House or Senate Democrats in competitive districts and states from running in this November’s elections amid a sagging economy and declining poll numbers for Obama.

Supermajority at Stake

At stake is the presidential party’s 60-vote majority that helps Democrats avoid Republican attempts to kill legislation, including Obama’s signature issue, a health-care bill before Congress that many Democrats also consider a tribute to Kennedy’s decades of work to expand medical coverage.

Still, “the key is what’s the turnout of independents,” who aren’t as likely as Democrats or Republicans to vote, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “A big turnout of independents probably favors Brown.”

While Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the state, 51 percent of voters aren’t registered with a party.

Obama warned that much of his agenda in Congress, specifically his health-care overhaul and proposed fee on big banks, hinges on retaining Kennedy’s former seat.

“We’ve begun to deliver on the change you voted for,” Obama told a crowd of about 1,500 people Jan. 17 at Northeastern University in Boston.

Race Tightening

Polls show the race tightening in the closing days of the campaign. One poll by Boston’s Suffolk University gave Brown a 4-percentage-point lead. Another poll by Survey USA, conducted Jan. 15-17, gave Brown a 7-point advantage. An InsiderAdvantage poll conducted Jan. 17 for Politico showed Brown leading by 9 percentage points.

The polls all have a margin of error of less than 5 percentage points.

Coakley had led by 31 points in a Suffolk poll last November.

Brown has cast himself as a populist and political outsider in a state with abuse-of-power scandals involving Democratic lawmakers including a former speaker of the House, Salvatore DiMasi, who was indicted on federal corruption charges.

The last Republican senator from Massachusetts was Edward Brooke, who served two terms before being defeated in 1978.

While Coakley campaigned with Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Brown crisscrossed the state in a pickup truck and recruited celebrities with blue-collar appeal. Joining him yesterday were Red Sox pitching legend Curt Schilling and John Ratzenberger, an actor who played the mail carrier on the “Cheers” television comedy.

‘Political Machine’

“I’m running in the name of every independent-thinking voter to take on the political machine and their candidate,” Brown says in a recent Web advertisement.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Jan. 17 that the Massachusetts race shows the extent of popular opposition to Obama’s health-care proposal.

Some analysts say local issues such as taxes loom larger.

“People are just really angry” about the economy, tax increases and corruption, said Fred Bayles, director of Boston University’s Statehouse Program. “Coakley should have been aware of what the situation was.”

Democrats took aim at Brown’s opposition to Obama’s plan to tax the largest financial firms, including Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp., to recoup losses from companies that got federal aid from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Focus on Banks

“Bankers don’t need another vote in the United States Senate — they’ve got plenty,” Obama said in Boston, signaling a broader political strategy to tie Republicans in this year’s races to Wall Street greed.

Brown has said banks will pass on the cost of Obama’s proposed tax to consumers in the form of higher fees.

Outside groups poured money into the race. The Tea Party Express, which opposes Obama’s health-care plan, said it has spent more than $300,000 supporting Brown. The National Rifle Association put almost $20,000 behind Brown.

Service Employees International Union groups reported on Jan. 13 spending almost $740,000 to back Coakley.

“The whole nation’s watching what’s happening in Massachusetts,” Coakley told supporters in Boston on Jan. 15.

The Massachusetts winner will replace Paul Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman appointed to the Senate after Kennedy died last August at age 77. Kirk didn’t run to serve the remaining three years of Kennedy’s term.