By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A01
Fueled by the energy of conservative activists, a solid debate performance and a 24-hour, $1.3 million Internet fundraising haul, Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown (R) has thrown a major scare into the Democratic establishment in his bid to win next Tuesday's special Senate election over once heavily favored Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The intensified activity around the campaign to fill the seat of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D) highlights the degree to which the race has taken on national significance. A victory, or even a narrow loss, by Brown in the competition for the symbolically important seat would be interpreted as another sign that voters have turned away from the Democrats at the start of the midterm election year.
More urgently, a Brown win would give Republicans 41 seats in the Senate and the ability to block President Obama's health-care initiative and much of the Democrats' 2010 congressional agenda. Strategists on both sides concede that a Brown victory would drastically reshape the calculus of the health-care debate, which is now in its final stages.
Brown still has some distance to go to pull off an upset, but Democrats now recognize they were wrong not to have taken his challenge more seriously from the start and are vowing not to let the race slip away out of neglect and a lack of aggressiveness.
"We believe at the end of the day the attorney general is going to win the race, but we're not going to take our foot off the gas," said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Brown, said: "I think it's a tight race, but Scott Brown still has to be considered the underdog. But clearly there's panic setting in on the other side, and they're jumping in with both feet."
Democrats have buttressed Coakley's campaign this week, adding fresh money and personnel to her operation and vowing to go after the Republican far more aggressively than they have to date.
The DSCC bought $500,000 in advertising time for the contest, and national Democrats sent a pair of experienced strategists -- Michael Meehan and Hari Sevugan -- to Massachusetts to help lead the attack on Brown and oversee the final days of Coakley's campaign. Democrats also have sent fundraising e-mails from Obama and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
Brown countered by announcing he had raised $1.3 million in the previous 24 hours through an Internet appeal. A sizable portion of that money will pay for television ads that combat the Democrats' stepped-up attacks.
Polls have offered a muddled picture of the race. On Sunday, the Boston Globe put Coakley's lead at 15 percentage points. But that came after two automated polls, whose methodology is not always as reliable, showed a far closer contest -- one gave Coakley a nine-point advantage, the other showed a virtual dead heat.
On Monday, national Democrats released the results of an internal survey showing Coakley's lead at 14 points, but their actions since have belied the idea that she is comfortably ahead. A pair of internal polls taken for the parties showed the gap between the candidates in the mid-single digits.
Democratic strategists in Massachusetts and Washington said they remain confident that Coakley will prevail, given the huge Democratic registration advantage in the state and the attorney general's appeal to female voters. But they blamed Coakley and her campaign for letting up over the holidays and allowing Brown to change the dynamic of the race.
More than the Coakley campaign's performance may be at work in Massachusetts. Brown's operation benefits from the fact that Republican and conservative voters appear more motivated, as they were in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in November. The accelerated activity by Democrats is designed in part to mobilize party voters and remind them of the stakes in Tuesday's balloting.
Coakley and Brown held their last debate Monday night, and while no clear winner emerged, Brown most often appeared to be taking a more aggressive posture. The two traded accusations on taxes, health-care reform and economic policy, with Coakley charging that Brown would take the country back to the economic policies of the George W. Bush administration.
Brown challenged Coakley, who opposes Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, on national security and terrorism, arguing that she was wrong to support the administration's decision to try self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in civilian court. After the debate, he also criticized Coakley for declaring that terrorists "are gone" from Afghanistan in explaining her support for an exit strategy.
Hoping to appeal to Massachusetts's long Democratic tradition, the Coakley camp began running a negative ad Monday attacking Brown as someone who would march "in lockstep with Washington Republicans." He responded Tuesday with his own ad in which he said she had decided "that the best way to stop me is to tear me down" and called on voters to reject her tactics.