Voter angst over health care, other issues shakes up Massachusetts Senate race

By Karl Vick
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

BOSTON -- Minutes before the widow of Edward M. Kennedy entered a union hall Saturday with the Democratic candidate to fill his seat in the U.S. Senate, the head of the state's AFL-CIO addressed the assembled workers with a speech that was part warning, part admonishment.

"We have a race on our hands," union president Robert Haynes roared. "A lot of our members are dramatically uninformed about this election and about the positions of the two candidates. . . . I know right now there are people in this room who think that Martha Coakley has a bad position on health care."

As introductions go, it was a sobering reminder of the challenge facing Coakley, the Democratic candidate, in her fight against Republican Scott Brown, and a bald display of the surprises emerging from a contest that polls show to be in a dead heat and that many Democrats fear portends difficulties in this year's elections in other states.

After the notion that Massachusetts voters may in two days send a Republican to the seat Kennedy held for 47 years, perhaps the most striking aspect of the campaign is that a central cause of voter unrest is the health reform legislation Kennedy called the cause of his life.

The bill being ground out between a House and Senate dominated by Democrats unnerves a majority of voters here, polling shows. And it has provided many with strong incentive to elect the Republican who would deprive Democrats of the crucial 60th vote needed to pass it in the upper chamber -- so much so that Obama is traveling here Sunday to help Coakley, a state attorney general, regain her footing.

"The health care has got me really worried," said Jeanne Jekanowski, 76, who as a single mother raising eight children relied on welfare and has faithfully voted Democrat, including a ballot for Coakley in last month's primary.

She said, however, that on Tuesday she will "absolutely" cast her vote for Scott Brown, a Republican state senator who two months ago was unknown even in most of Massachusetts. "I'm scared to death they're going to reduce my Medicare," Jekanowski said.

On Saturday, Coakley took a fresh stab at the issue. Her campaign charged that Brown avoids providing health insurance for his own campaign workers by employing them as independent contractors.

Brown dismissed the issue as a late hit.

How it came to this, in a state colored the deepest shade of navy on electoral maps, is less mysterious to Massachusetts residents than to the many outside observers of the electoral drama that erupted here in the span of days.

In addition to concerns about health care, and frustration over deals that have been cut to aid its passage, the wave of voter indignation carrying Brown toward Washington rises in part, according to voters, from a bristling discomfort with one-party rule -- something Massachusetts has led the nation in longer than many here care to be reminded.

"You want to see things move forward. You don't want things to sit still," said Tom Worthley, 45, who strung a massive homemade sign for Brown in his front lawn in Fitchburg, a once solidly Democratic town pollsters regard as a bellwether for the rest of the state. "But a healthy balance is what America's about."

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