BY CHRIS SZABLA
When Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley resoundingly defeated three challengers in the Democratic Party primary for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Edward M. Kennedy until his death last year, her cruise to an ultimate victory appeared certain. After all, the state had not elected a senator to sit on the other side of the political aisle for nearly four decades. So when Democratic colleagues like Senator John Kerry introduced her as “the next Senator from Massachusetts,” they weren’t just employing the usual campaign rhetoric.
But what appeared to be a surprising surge in the popularity – and electability – of Coakley’s Republican challenger, Scott Brown, threw the levelheaded (and some would say too complacent) Coakley campaign into disarray. Polls were showing the race getting more repetitive. Rasmussen, a polling service that tends to skew toward conservative candidates and which has been faulted for its methodology, nevertheless generated excitement among Republicans when it showed Coakley’s lead trimmed to 9%. Subsequent polls have confirmed gains for Brown, but differ over whether they are much larger or smaller than those reported by Rasmussen.
Suddenly, the Coakley campaign has found itself under attack for not going on the offensive since the Attorney General’s primary victory, resting on its laurels for a presumed victory in the last round of the special election, which is scheduled for January 19th.
By contrast, Brown, a State Senator from Wrentham, has been eroding Coakley’s most serious advantage in the primaries, name recognition, by barraging the airwaves two controversial ads. The first aped the image of former President John F. Kennedy, who had himself held the Senate seat later occupied by his brother Ted. It begins with raw footage of President Kennedy appealing for tax cuts, and then morphs into an image of Brown finishing his words, before Brown is shown in color saying that tax cuts could help grow the economy.
By reminding voters of the former President’s tax policy, Brown’s ad was clearly intended to tie his candidacy to the legacy of the Kennedy family – a mantle a Republican was otherwise unlikely to inherit. In the Democratic primary debates, the candidates had scrapped audibly over which best represented a continuation of the prominent political family’s legacy.
In a second ad, Brown contrasts his stance on taxes to Coakley’s, quoting her saying “we’ve got to get taxes up”. Coakley allies have cried foul, saying Brown took Coakley’s words – meant to refer to tax revenue, rather than rates – severely out of context.
A similar criticism could be applied to Brown’s Kennedy ad, which refers to a policy adopted by Kennedy during a period of relative economic prosperity, when the country did not face a crisis of ballooning debt at least partly attributable to the enthusiasm for tax cuts shown under the George W. Bush administration and its Republican Congresses. During that period, tax cuts failed to increase sluggish growth and job creation, problems that were only exacerbated by the global financial crisis and deep recession that have developed in the last year and a half.
Coakley has largely chosen the high road, however, airing more and more ads emphasizing her positive contributions to financial regulation and plans to remake Wall Street. But if they display a firm grasp of the nation’s financial and economic problems, Coakley’s ads lack charisma and pizzazz. They seem unlikely to generate enthusiasm for a candidate whose primary victory was largely attributable to structural factors.
These included not only statewide name recognition (Coakley was the only candidate to have been elected statewide and is from the western part of the state, boosting her popularity there), but her early entry into the race, and extremely low turnout – in part due to the election’s unorthodox date, proximity to the holiday season, and even cold weather. Coakley also had the advantage of an established base of women, who are eager to see her become the state’s first female senator.
If enthusiasm for the race remains as low as it had been in the primary period, these same conditions should lead Coakley to victory once more. And Massachusetts’ registered Democrats also outnumber Republicans more than three to one. The expected low turnout could increase the probability that the longtime frontrunner and candidate whose political machine is the most well-oiled will be able to achieve victory.
The Boston Globe’s poll, which was conducted with a larger sample size than Rasmussen’s, and which, crucially, sampled likely voters, actually showed Coakley with a 15 percent lead. Her lead grew to 17 points if those merely leaning toward voting for her were included, the paper reported.
Alarmingly for Democrats, however, the Public Policy Polling (PPP) service has subsequently reported a possible one-point Brown victory, using a sample size around the same size of the Globe’s. The PPP poll also seems to show the number of undecided voters shrinking, indicating that they – and likely other independents – had shifted to Brown.
According to the press release included with the poll, entitled “Senate Race Competitive,” a declining number of likely voters were those that had voted for President Barack Obama ’91 in 2008, indicating that dissatisfaction with sitting Democrats might influence turnout, as it had during gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia last fall, where Democrats were felled by Republican insurgents. National Republicans have been pointing to those races, and Brown’s gains in the hitherto impregnable Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts, as evidence of its good chances in this fall’s upcoming 2010 midterm Congressional elections.
But absent from the PPP poll’s choices is independent candidate Joe Kennedy, who has no relation to the Kennedy family, but whose confusing name might have some influence on the outcome of the race. The Globe poll showed Kennedy pulling 5%. Moreover, PPP, while affiliated with Democrats, shares a suspect phone-touch methodology with Rasmussen.