Monday, January 18, 2010

Massachusetts...Part I

This Tuesday, Massachusetts voters will go to the polls to choose someone to finish out the Senate term of the late, beloved, Ted Kennedy. With these first few posts, I figure I’ll attempt to cover the good, the bad, and the ugly this race involves (I apologize in advance for the length...there is a LOT to brief on the race). The upcoming special election in Massachusetts between Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and Republican State Senator Scott Brown has recently gained a fabulous explosion of attention with the sudden surge Brown has seen in the polls.

For her part, Coakley came to this point by rising up through the ranks of Massachusetts state politics and rather soundly defeated her Democratic challengers in the primary a few months back. Meanwhile Brown gained his party’s nomination while being a largely unknown politician in a state where 35 of the 40 Senate seats are held by Democrats.

Initially, Coakley held a tremendous lead in the polls of, at times, over 30 points. At this point, her campaign made what could turn out to be a fatal error in NOT aggressively campaigning throughout the state to cement her lead/victory. And why should she have? It was Ted Kennedy’s seat, and Massachusetts has a grand total of zero statewide offices, or federal congressional districts that are occupied by someone who isn’t a Democrat. Furthermore, the RNC viewed this race as impossible to win and didn’t send money in Brown’s direction. Hell, even after 2010 began, Larry Sabato, the UVa professor known as “the most-quoted in the land” and a renowned political pundit described this as a “kamikaze mission” for the Republicans to get a 41st seat in the Senate.

Yet here we are less than 48 hours away from the polls closing in Massachusetts and multiple polling agencies have come out with Scott Brown holding slim lead, including one Suffolk University poll that has him up 4 points as of Saturday (yet still within the 4.4% margin of error).

How in the hell did this race become so close?

  1. First, while every Democrat in Massachusetts and DC was dozing off, many of those “Tea Party Patriots” were independently looking to Massachusetts, seeing a viable candidate in Scott Brown, and silently sending in donations and support in hopes of maybe, just maybe, winning this election and killing the Health Care bill once and for all.
  2. Second, Martha Coakley has never been known as the most likeable person in Massachusetts, which isn’t entirely surprising given her career path as an Assistant District Attorney from 1986 to 1997 and District Attorney from 1999 to 2007 in Middlesex County. She worked her way up by being a tough lawyer for the state, not as one of the silver tongued Kennedy clan that have dominated Massachusetts politics for so long. Not to mention she seems incapable of spelling Massachusetts properly: (second line from the bottom at the end). Seems to have eerily Palin-esque moments on foreign policy, and in a state that is 44% Catholic said that devout Catholics probably should not work in emergency rooms.
  3. Meanwhile, Scott Brown has had to get to this point by being a likeable guy. You cannot win as a Republican in Massachusetts based on ideology alone, the state has delivered double digit victories to every Democratic presidential nominee since Dukakis in ’88, and he still won by 8.
  4. This brings up the most important point in all of this: Republicans that hold offices in Massachusetts are gifted politicians who know how to win races. Six of the ten congressional districts in the state in 2008 went to Democrats who were literally uncontested. Democrats in Massachusetts, save for a few Gubernatorial elections, have never really lost anything in recent political history…so they don’t know how to win.

Overall, I think that Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight is right to argue that this is more of a toss-up (incidentally if you have a spare 15 minutes I strongly suggest you sift over what 538 has right now. Silver is a very intelligent, very impressive, and very accurate statistician who really knows his stuff) than a lean Brown for a number of reasons:

  1. Special elections are especially (no pun intended) difficult to poll for because the electorate is so abnormal.
  2. General election polling in the state isn’t the most accurate because there haven’t been many hotly contested races before, so it’s not likely all of the polling models are fine tuned.
  3. People don’t know when the Election Day is…this isn’t a joke.
  4. Many on the Right may not even be registered due to years of virtual obscurity.
  5. The state is expecting a horrendous Rain-Snow mix throughout both Monday and Tuesday.
  6. Furthermore, President Obama and the Kennedy family have kicked into high gear over the weekend campaigning for Coakley.
  7. Not to mention the fact that MLK week traditionally is taken off by many in Boston who head south for a few days.

All of this is by saying this has to send chills down the spine of almost any progressive out there today. This Health Care bill has been the political battleground for the past 8-9 months. Countless members of Congress have put themselves out on a limb for this bill, and we could be an ill-timed snowstorm away from the whole thing unraveling at the very end. It’s positively Sisyphean, and truly unbelievable, yet on Tuesday the Bay Staters will be going to the polls to make a decision with far greater ramifications than simply who will finish out Ted Kennedy’s unfinished term.

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