Brown seen as gaining on Coakley in race for Kennedy Senate seat

Republican state Sen. Scott Brown is closing the gap in some polls in the special election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Edward Kennedy.
Republican state Sen. Scott Brown is closing the gap in some polls in the special election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Edward Kennedy. (Steven Senne/associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010

Massachusetts isn't the likeliest backdrop for Republicans to begin their long climb back to a Senate majority. Democrats control both of the state's U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, all 10 House seats and wide majorities in the state legislature.

And yet, the buzz in political circles over the past week is that state Sen. Scott Brown is rapidly making up ground on state Attorney General Martha Coakley in the Jan. 19 special election to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy -- movement that has Democrats scrambling to ensure they keep what should be a sure thing in their column.

Coakley used her name identification and fundraising edge to coast to a pedestrian victory over Rep. Mike Capuano, among others, in the Dec. 8 Democratic primary. But she has drawn heavy criticism from party strategists in the state and nationally for not doing enough to energize supporters in a political climate decidedly unfriendly to their party.

GOP excitement was fueled in recent days by the latest polls in the race. Two automated polls -- a controversial methodology -- showed the contest within single digits, and a Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed Coakley and Brown tied among those "extremely interested" in the race. Although Coakley carries a sizable 15-point advantage in the Globe poll, and leads on most issues, special elections are low-turnout affairs and are notoriously difficult to poll accurately, allowing both sides to spin the numbers.

Sensing opportunity, national Republicans are beginning to mobilize. The American Future Fund, an independent conservative group, is spending more than $400,000 on ads slamming Coakley on taxes, and sources familiar with the organization say there's more where that came from.

Democrats quickly sought to counter, announcing that former president Bill Clinton will be campaigning for Coakley in the state on Friday and sending out a fundraising e-mail urging donations to "fight back against swiftboat attacks" in the race -- a reference to the ads attacking the character of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during his 2004 presidential bid.

There was no consensus why the contest had tightened in recent days, although two factors were commonly cited: the national issue landscape and Coakley's less-than-inspiring general-election campaign.

"People are angry -- way too many are out of work, everyone is scared about the economy, [and] they don't want their taxes to go up," explained one longtime Massachusetts Democrat. "It's not surprising that the out-of-power party could gain some momentum, even in Massachusetts."

Eric Fehrnstrom, who advised Republican Mitt Romney in his successful 2002 campaign for Massachusetts governor and is serving in a similar role for Brown, said the dynamic in the two races is similar. "I sense the same kind of movement toward having a check and balance in the system and against the worst excesses of government," Fehrnstrom said.

While Democrats acknowledge that the national environment isn't doing Coakley any favors -- particularly among independent and unaffiliated voters -- many blame her for the sudden competitiveness of the contest. "To avoid handing the Republicans bragging rights for making it a competitive race, she's got to turn it up a notch and remind voters why it is they elect Democrats in Massachusetts and why she's the change agent in the race," said one senior Democratic strategist in the state, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of Coakley's candidacy.

Coakley spokesman Corey Welford said: "We have great momentum heading into these final days, but we are taking nothing for granted."

On the stump, Coakley is focusing heavily on job creation. "I understand the challenges small businesses face, especially in today's tough economy," she said over the weekend. Brown, meanwhile, is casting himself as an outsider to the political process. Over the weekend, he launched an ad promising that "as your senator, I will never compromise our nation's security."

The stakes of the race are high -- for both symbolic and practical reasons. The idea of Kennedy's seat falling into the hands of Republicans is stomach-turning for Democratic loyalists, particularly given that a defeat would imperil passage of President Obama's health-care legislation, as the party would control only 59 votes.

Interim Sen. Paul Kirk, a former Kennedy staff member who is serving until the Coakley-Brown contest is decided, said recently that he would cast a vote for the bill even if Brown wins next week. Republicans say that statement will help them make the case to voters that Democrats will do and say anything to keep control of the seat.

Democrat vs. Democrat

Remember Harold Ford Jr., the up-and-coming Tennessee Democrat who narrowly lost a controversial Senate race in 2006 to Republican Bob Corker?

He's ba-ack!

There were reports last week that Ford, who moved to New York several years ago, was interested in challenging appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary this year. Well, he is more than interested -- the former congressman is actively pursing the seat. Ford has hired a spokesman and set tongues a-wagging when he huddled recently with Bradley Tusk, who managed the 2009 reelection campaign of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), and pollster Doug Schoen.

The White House was heavily involved in clearing out the Democratic field for Gillibrand in 2009, talking Rep. Steve Israel out of the race as he was on the verge of joining it. It's a near-certainty the White House, as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, will stand by Gillibrand, a unified front that would make it difficult for Ford to raise money in a contest that would cost millions.

Ford, an executive at Merrill Lynch, did not return an e-mail from the Fix seeking comment on his potential bid.

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