Massachusetts Senate race narrows in final week

BY CHRIS SZABLA

Senate primary candidates Steve Pagliuca and Alan Khazei ’87 faced off at Harvard Law School last month

Polling data over the last several months made it seem as if Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was a shoo-in for the Democratic Party’s candidate to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. But new numbers show other Democratic candidates challenging her lead – and picking up a number of high profile endorsements. With the primary for primary for the state’s special Senate election set to be held December 8th – less than a week away – the chances that another candidate may pull off a surprise victory are now higher than ever.

The good news for Coakley’s challengers – who include House of Representatives member Mike Capuano of Massachusetts’ 8th District, Boston Celtics owner Steven Pagliuca, and City Year service organization founder Alan Khazei ’87 – began on November 18, when a Boston Globe poll showed Capuano appearing to gain support among undecideds. His numbers shot up from 16 to 22% within a ten day period. The trend accelerated with the release of a Rasmussen poll showing Coakley’s appearing to be chipped away by Khazei, who gained 8 percentage points between the Globe poll and the November 23 tally.

That was before the Boston Globe, in a surprise move, offered its endorsement to the now-dark horse candidate Khazei. The weekend endorsement came with surprising rebukes against the other candidates – the firey Capuano, the paper said, was “too populist,” Coakley “too cautious,” and Pagliuca, a Harvard Business School graduate who made his fortune in consulting, not experienced enough in politics to inherent Kennedy’s mantle. Citing Khazei’s bold stances on the issues and experience with grassroots organizing, the Globe called him “Massachusetts’ best chance to produce another great senator”. Khazei has also rolled out a list of endorsements running from AOL CEO Steve Case to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Max Kennedy, a scion of the Kennedy family itself.

No more than a day later, Capuano picked up a major endorsement from former Governor and 1988 Presidential candidate Mike Dukakis ’60 – Dukakis’ first endorsement for a statewide position since 1990. Capuano has also been endorsed by Diane Patrick, the wife of current Governor Deval Patrick ’82, though the Governor himself has not endorsed anyone in the primary.

Advertising for the Pagliuca campaign has been copious over the last few weeks, with ads for his campaign flooding television and computer screens across the Commonwealth. But the businessman’s numbers have been stagnant: after an early surge in late September, they have stabilized at around 15%. After the Globe’s endorsement, Khazei appeared to be in position to overtake him as the third place candidate.

The tightening of the race was reflected in sharp words exchanged between the candidates at a debate sponsored by Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB. Each of the candidates fiercely defended their backgrounds – Capuano appeared particularly concerned that the other candidates would try to spin Congressional act and White House policy against him: he is the only candidate in the race with experience serving in elected federal office. More than once he was forced to point out that the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the unpopular “bailout” of major banks, was not equivalent to the stimulus pushed by the Obama administration earlier this year.

Khazei and Pagliuca, for their part, tried to get past the barrier of inexperience. Pagliuca pointed out that he was highly active in Democratic fundraising and had opposed the Iraq War within the business community, but commenters texting WCVB pointed out that he had also donated money to George W. Bush. The same commenters seemed surprised by the appearance of Khazei who, despite his Globe endorsement, lacks for name recognition in the state. Khazei emphasized the twenty years he had spent working in Washington, pointing out that he had played a role in passing several major pieces of legislation with Ted Kennedy.

Martha Coakley’s reputation as a safe and perhaps even overcautious candidate was borne out by her performance that evening, as she continued to assert that a “second stimulus” aimed at job creation may not be as much of a priority for her as an evaluation of the first economic recovery measure. But the Attorney General revealed passion when discussing her stance on whether abortions should be covered by health care.

Although the House health care bill includes an amendment substantially restricting access to health care funds for abortions, Pagliuca said that he would vote for it. In the sharpest exchange of the evening, Coakley declared that the issue was “not political, but personal”. Capuano quickly backed her up with a severe jab at Pagliuca: the businessman would “send America’s women to the back alleys” for abortions by voting for the current incarnation of the House health care bill.

The candidates claimed the mantle of Kennedy, but each displayed a slightly different side of the late Senator’s personality: his sometimes brash, righteous anger (embodied by Capuano), his willingness to compromise (a trait that seemed to belong most to Coakley) and his dedication to public service (the mantle clearly inherited by Khazei). As voters learn more about the four, they seem less able to choose between these qualities , which they so admired, together, in the late Senator Kennedy.

 

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