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The Mass. Senate race: a smart view from the ground

The problem when elections get nationalized is that everyone -- particularly those of us in Washington -- starts seeing a race’s large implications without remembering that elections are about people, including candidates themselves, and local conditions.

Lord knows that the Massachusetts Senate vote next Tuesday has large implications. That’s why President Obama will be up there on Sunday. But the race became competitive in significant part because of how Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown ran their campaigns.

In today’s Boston Globe, columnist Adrian Walker offers an excellent, balanced, ground-up view of why Coakley is in trouble. Walker states flatly that Coakley has run a “lousy campaign,” but also speaks with some empathy about the fix she’s in.

She is suddenly being savaged -- especially in the national media -- as mediocre, which she certainly is not. (That would be Scott Brown.) Popular just a few weeks ago, suddenly it’s as though no one quite knows how she got on the ballot.
She became a credible Senate candidate by being competent and methodical. She has been a good prosecutor and solid attorney general. But qualities of hers that were viewed as admirable a few months ago have morphed into liabilities.
And clearly she has had no idea how to deal with it. It was downright painful in the debate Monday night to watch her trying to assure voters that she has a personality and a sense of humor, without actually daring to say anything personal or funny.
It’s hard to remember a candidate for major office so afraid of revealing his or her personality.
Her single biggest problem is that voters don’t feel like they know enough about her. Fixing that in a weekend may not be possible.

Yet Walker also explains why Brown has made this such a seemingly close race. (I say “seemingly” because I honestly don’t know how to sort out all the polling, and I don’t know that anyone else can, either. My guess is that it is close, but who knows?) Here’s Walker’s take:

His message is resonating. Her strategy isn’t.
If nothing else, give Brown credit for having a better sense of the mood of the voters. They got tired of hearing that it was “Ted Kennedy’s seat.’’ (Best line of the campaign, by Brown: “It isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat, it belongs to the people of Massachusetts.’’)
They got tired of hearing that they had to save an unpopular health care proposal.
They got tired, as voters always do, of inevitability. Voters hate inevitability.
So it’s down to the last weekend, Brown’s well-financed insurgency and pledges of “independence’’ against Coakley’s guest campaigners and withering attack ads.

One thing I see differently from Walker (although he’s on the ground and I’m not): The value of Obama’s visit. “We won’t know until Tuesday night whether bringing President Obama in to campaign was a good idea or a bad one,” he writes. “At first blush, though, it’s problematic. It reinforces the idea that Coakley can’t close the deal with voters by herself. And worse, it reinforces the idea that she is simply a product of a political machine.”

All that may be true. But for the reasons Walker describes so well, I think it’s impossible for Coakley to “close the deal with the voters by herself” in the few days remaining. Her best chance of winning is to focus the minds of Democratic voters on how high the stakes in the race are. Obama can do that better than anyone -- and, yes, better than she can herself.

By E.J. Dionne  | January 16, 2010; 3:08 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Next: Massachusetts' love/hate relationship with Democrats

Comments

Five of my children were born in Massachusetts and I've been following this race very closely. You're relying on Adrian Walker's "excellent balanced ground-up view" of the race, but it's worth noting that Walker works for the Globe, and the Globe's overall coverage of this race has been a case study in bias. If Walker's the only "on the ground" information you are relying on, you're missing what's really happening.

First, let me explain why I say the Globe is biased. Let's assume, for the moment, that Brown wins this race. The conventional wisdom will be that he won because Coakley is a TERRIBLE candidate. In this case, the conventional wisdom will be surprisingly true, but YOU'D NEVER KNOW IT BY READING THE GLOBE. After the dust has settled in Massachusetts, I hope SOMEBODY goes back through the Globe archives to show that her every gaffe was ignored and her foolish moves were praised (at the time). That's how I judge bias--it looks stupid in hindsight.

As for more reliable on-the-ground information: it's hard to do much better than the pictures of purple-shirted SEIU union members holding up Scott Brown signs. There are now multiple examples of "SEIU for Brown" pictures swirling around Twitter. If Coakley can't keep the SEIU local members on her side, she's WAY past the "crash and burn" phase of this campaign.

I think Obama's visit will make a difference--I expect him to mobilize a large number of "unlikely voters." If he weren't coming, I'd predict a Brown win by double digits. As it is, I'm predicting a 52-46 win for Brown.

Posted by: SWSomerville | January 16, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Your article mentions that Coakley "became a credible Senate candidate by being competent and methodical. She has been a good prosecutor and solid attorney general."

Well, your article is ignoring something very important. Many people in Massachusetts (both Democrats & Republicans) have disliked Coakley very intensely for a very very long time.

Many in Massachusetts have not forgotten, for instance, that Coakley, to advance her own career, convinced Jane Swift not to sign the recommended release of Gerald Amirault. Remember him? Amirault was sent to jail, innocent of crimes that never happened - the infamous Fells Acre Child Abuse case. Coakley still maintains that she was right to keep Amirault in jail. And Fells Acre is only one of the cases that Coakley botched. There were many others.

Coakley is a political hack, and I, for one, wouldn't vote for her if she were running for dog-catcher.

Posted by: ttaylor1 | January 16, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Obama might be able to "close the deal" - for Brown.
All the polling shows that the first concerns of MA voters are jobs and the economy, not health care. They wonder why the Democrats are so intent on passing poor legislation that the majority of Americans oppose when there are more important things to be done.
Further, 65% of MA voters - even those who support HC - think that we can't afford it. See: first concerns of the people - "It's the economy, stupid."

Obama showing up may mobilize some Democrats but it will energize more of those who are tired of the waste of political capital on poorly-conceived legislation that doesn't address the real problems with HC, and has gotten to the brink of passage by the worst of machine politics. Coakley, hand in hand with Clinton and Obama, simply highlights that machine. Add the unions, an unpopular Democratic governor, and the local Democratic party establishment in the background of every photo op, and she's another party hack.

The American people are being ignored by the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress. MA electing Brown should get their attention like a 2 x 4 upside the head.
The question is whether they will rationalize it away. Can this be Bush's fault too? Or will they blame Coakley and go on their merry way to self-destruction?

Posted by: parkbench | January 16, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

How can the majority of American people not support health care reform? It absolutely boggles my mind that that was one of Obama's #1 issues, he is now trying to achieve it, and the very people who voted so enthusiastically for him are by all accounts against it. I am an "American people" and I wholeheartedly support it. In fact, it is my #1 issue and one of the primary reasons I'm a Democrat. Why all those other fickle idiots voted for Obama, only to oppose every move he's made since he took office, I will never know.

Posted by: suse1 | January 16, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

What E.J Dionne overlooks is the fact Martha Coakley took Massachusetts voters for granted. She was left defending Democratic policies unpopular in her home state: Obamacare, high taxes, suffocating regulations and high deficits. Its would tough to do that in a good year but in a recession, it showed she's out of touch with the very people she wants to represent. And Obama's stopover Sunday only links her to an unpopular President and his equally unpopular policies. For those reasons, she will lose on Tuesday. And unless the Democrats dump Obamacare and the rest of their Far Left agenda, they will lose everywhere in November.

Posted by: NormanF | January 16, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Maybe people just got tired of the Democrats ignoring them and pushing anything they think is good for us down our throats.

They govern by the will of the people and the Democrats are ignoring the people.

No one likes to be told to shut up and sit down, while a bunch of politicans tell us what is good for us!

They work for us. It is time the Democrats figure that out!

Posted by: heathergreeneyes | January 16, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing like a few years of Democrat polocies, to fuel a republican return in 2010 and 2012.

If you think this is bad, wait for Immigration Reform and Cap and Trade!

The Democrats are going to push the same Immigration Bill that Americans already said they did not want. And their cap and Trade bill by it's very nature has to raise the cost of electricity and gasoline and with those the cost of everything else!

And has anyone sat back and added up the way ALL these bills combined is going to effect our wallets? Your not going to be paying more for just health care, or just fuel and electricity, or just higher taxes; your going to be paying more for all of these combined!

Posted by: heathergreeneyes | January 16, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Dionne is entitled to his opinions, but in this case he is relying upon the biased views typically expressed in the Boston Globe. Most acknowledge that Martha Coakley has run a horrible campaign and it is she who is "mediocre", not the front-runner Scott Brown. The latest polls (except the Boston Globe's) show Brown garnering large majorities of votes from Independents and Republicans, and a substantial number of votes from registered Democrats who are fed up with the machine-dominated shenanigans in Massachusetts. Likely voters want an alternative to the Liberal partisanship and ideology-driven left-wing policies, higher taxes and trillion-dollar spending sprees that is promoted by increasingly unpopular Democrats. Obama's visits to Virginia and New Jersey to shore up Democratic candidates for governor failed to reverse the rising tide of citizen anger and frustration with policies of even more taxes, and out-of-control federal and state budget deficits. On social issues, Democrats are way out of touch with ordinary Amerians. It should not be surprising that it now seems inevitable that Massachusetts will actually elect a Republican voice in the Senate. But even if Mr. Brown were to lose, the tally of final votes will certainly be very close, and the Democrats have a great deal to worry about in the mid-term elections this coming November.

Posted by: BKLisenbee | January 17, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I was going to post a deep, insightful comment, but SWSomerville in an early posting said it all.

I do want to support her comments on the Daily Globe being in the tank for Coakley.

When the reporter from the Weekly Standard was pushed to the sidewalk, the Globe ran the article as the reporter "tripped" and was being "helped up" by a Coakley aide.

And they stuck with that piece of Agitprop until the "aide" Meehan, apologized to McCormack for his thugish behavior.

Unbelievable!

Posted by: jgfox39 | January 17, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Will the dreaded "Kennedy Curse" be broken by the people of Massachusetts?? Hasn't the Kennedy clan owned that state long enough??

If the curse is broken, that would be change to really believe in.

Posted by: battleground51 | January 18, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

There is no doubt in my mind that the reason Democrat Martha Coakleyn is in a strong race with Republican Scott Brown is owing to her partisan approval of Comprehensive Immigration Reform or AMNESTY. The majority of Americans remember the last travesty of the 1986 immigration reform, that not only legalized around 3.5 million agricultural worker, but even more desperate, poor people slipped into America before the final bill was signed. The same scenario is sure to happen again, because millions of more people are aware they can get instant recognition as legitimate. Senator Edward Kennedy now vacated seat, is what Coakleyn and Scott are competing over and could jeopardize the Health Care Reform package. A Republican Senate victory in the blue state of Massachusetts would have massive repercussions and could even echo in the Oval office. Even Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank stated to reporters, " if Brown wins, the president's overhaul of health care is dead." President Obama is stumping himself in trying to preserve the crucial 60th Democratic Senate vote needed to pass the health care overhaul.

The deciding factor is what is more important to the voters in this special election? Opening the door even wider for millions of illegal people to siphon of --BILLIONS--in taxpayers money for health care, education and other unrevealed entitlements. As Brown debated stopping the issuance of driving drivers licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. But then crush any chance of the Democrats passing health care reform? Or by voting for Scott Brown wrecking any chance of another Amnesty, that as the US Census assumes could lead to unsustainable OVERPOPULATION. Shortly we will learn the answer to this unnerving question, that will decide future generations quality of life. If this Republican wins it will send a traumatic message, to Democrats that includes Sen. Harry Reid, Speaker Pelosi and the rest who are pandering to illegal immigrants, that Americans are tired of being taxed to support foreign nationals. It will mean E-Verify could become permanent and zero in on the millions of illegal labor, fraudulently taking jobs from legitimate workers.

It will mean stepped up audits, by ICE in all working locations. It could strengthen the 287 (G) federal training program to arrest illegal foreigners, that has been weakened by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. E-Verify upgrades could reduce overtime a very sufficient way to force illegal workers into self-deportation, because they can no longer steal American jobs.

Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to be connected to your Senator and Congressman and use the voting power of THE PEOPLE. NUMBERSUSA AND JUDICIAL WATCH for more frightening information and which lawmaker are signers to the potential AMNESTY and the immigration grades of these proponents.

Posted by: infinity555 | January 18, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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