It's hard to imagine Democrat Martha Coakley or Republican Scott Brown filling the Senate seat held over the centuries by John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Henry Cabot Lodge, John F. Kennedy and the late Edward M. Kennedy. But one of those two is going to win it next week in a special election.
Brown is the new Republican "It" candidate, a state senator running in true-blue Democratic Massachusetts against health reform, against taxes, against spending, against trying terrorists in U.S. courts, and enthusiastically in favor of becoming the senator who reduces the Democrats' filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority to 59 votes.
Coakley, the state's liberal attorney general and pretty much the opposite of all of the above, was coasting on name recognition until a couple of wake-up polls in the past week. National party leaders are swooping in with help that includes a newly aggressive message, a new TV ad
tying Brown to "Washington Republicans" who want to help Wall Street and deny women emergency contraception, and a visit later this week from former president Bill Clinton.
Stark contrasts and stark choices were on display in the pair's nationally televised debate Monday night. This is how the November elections are likely to look all over the country: Polarized – with few, if any, candidates occupying the swampy middle ground.
Democrats can only hope that their November candidates are more inspiring than Coakley. She tried playing offense but didn't nail down her points, whether the issue was terrorists (couldn't she just say that enemy combatants tried by military commissions get lawyers, just like those tried in court, and that's a good thing?) or health care (could she not have argued that reform will create jobs, as at least one study
has shown, not cost them as Brown contended?) And did she have to say there may be no way to succeed in Afghanistan? Maybe that's true from a purely military standpoint, but we are going to be there – must be there -- in some capacity for many years.
Brown, meanwhile, managed to patronize Coakley ("You have to start dealing with reality, Martha"), moderator David Gergen ("I know you're not from this area" so you're clueless) and President Obama ("I'm glad he's finally realized we're at war" – something Obama said in the fifth paragraph
of his Inaugural Address and has been saying ever since). Brown's approach is probably not ideal for winning over women and moderates.
The Brown "surge" story line started a week ago with the release of a Rasmussen poll showing him 9 percentage points behind Coakley
. It picked up momentum Saturday when Public Policy Polling had Brown leading Coakley
48 percent to 47 percent – then stumbled Sunday with a Boston Globe poll giving Coakley a 15-point lead
. That poll and a similar one from Democrat Mark Mellman have alleviated the Democratic Party's palpitations. "I have suspicions that Scott Brown may have peaked a little early," said one Democrat familiar with the race.
Still, there's no containing the surge of GOP optimism at the mere idea that Brown is competitive in Massachusetts. "This is a race that Democrats should win at a minimum by double digits. If it's even close, that has to send a very strong message to Democrats looking ahead to November," a Republican strategist told me.
Every national poll has shown that Republicans are energized, Democrats lack intensity and voters in general don't like the job Congress is doing. Brown has ridden the wave of anti-Washington sentiment but Coakley has run as if it were a Democratic-friendly year. Democratic strategist Dan Payne said there has been "no urgency" in her message to voters. "We haven't heard her say 'I want to go to Washington and do X, Y and Z, and it's very important that we get these things done,'" he told me before the debate. Republican analyst Todd Domke, Payne's frequent public sparring partner, said Coakley decided on a "cruise-control" campaign strategy that was "too cautious, too timid."
Coakley's campaign biography
emphasizes her long career fighting organized crime, sexual assault, and child abuse. Brown is a military officer, and no visitor to his campaign website could miss that fact. "Scott Brown is a Lt. Colonel of the Army National Guard. Use of his military rank, title and photograph in uniform does not imply endorsement by the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense," his homepage says
Brown's online fundraiser Monday had a distinctly military cast. He unleashed a "Red Invades Blue" blitz called a "moneybomb" – the term for a one-day dash to collect a certain amount of cash. He reached his goal of $500,000 by 4 p.m. – eight hours before deadline. He was up to $800,000 by the time the 7 p.m. debate started, and had a new goal of $1 million.
The Republican establishment – former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, GOP Chairman Michael Steele – has come out foursquare for Brown. From the Tea Party-ish wing, so have retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling
("This state can literally change the nation in one day") and the Iowa-based American Future Fund
(running a statewide ad that says "Coakley supports massive new spending and the tax increases to pay for it"). What's more interesting is who's missing. The Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, Fred and Jeri Thompson – all the groups and people who made the recent special election for an upstate New York House seat so, um, special
The problem as some conservatives see it is that despite GOP intensity and Coakley's far from stellar campaign, Brown remains a long shot. "You're looking at Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat. That's difficult. That's reaching," FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon told me.
A Kennedy seat in a state full of Democrats and independents. As of Dec. 30, 2009, according to the state's elections office, more than half of Massachusetts voters were "unenrolled" – that is, registered to vote with no party ID. Among the rest, 37 percent were Democrats and 11 percent were Republicans. That's not to say Brown has no chance whatsoever. This is the first special Senate election the state has ever had, and nobody knows who will show up to vote. So a relatively small number of people could make a big difference.
The new polls could drive some conservative leaning independents to turn out for Brown (they'd likely stay home "if they thought he would lose in a blowout," Domke said).On the other hand, the polls also have stunned Democrats out of their listlessness. They truly get it, as evidenced by the headlines on pitches circulated by the feminist fundraising group EMILY's List on Saturday ("Emergency in Massachusetts") and on Monday ("Circling Sharks").
The Democratic activity is not good news for the GOP. Nor is a new analysis by the pollster who first showed Brown closing in on Coakley. Scott Rasmussen writes that while the latest batch of polls shows Brown has gained ground, it is still likely
that Massachusetts voters will send Coakley to Washington.
Wednesday morning update: Rasmussen has yet another poll and this one finds Brown just 2 percentage points behind Coakley, 49 percent to 47 percent. The pollster suggests Brown's pledge to block health reform
may be a factor.