In Massachusetts, a final push in Senate special election

The race to fill the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts nears its conclusion with not only its outcome but also the fate of President Obama's agenda in question. (Jan. 19)
By Karl Vick and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

BOSTON -- On the eve of the Senate election that could determine the fate of President Obama's agenda, Democrats scrambled to build a firebreak around the candidacy of Martha Coakley against the phenomenon of Scott Brown, the Republican Massachusetts state senator whose underdog campaign has surged as the vessel for national opposition to the Democrats' supermajority in the chamber.

Both teams, reinforced by senior political operatives from Washington and bevies of volunteers from beyond Massachusetts, made ardent appeals for supporters to brave freezing temperatures to vote in Tuesday's special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy (D).

Democrats focused on trying to persuade independent women to vote for Coakley, who would become the first female senator from the Bay State. Republicans championed Brown as the best brake on runaway spending in Washington.

"We are going to bring this home tomorrow," Coakley said to cheers in a half-filled middle school gymnasium in Framingham, a Boston suburb where she made her fourth of six stops Monday. "Let's get to work."

Enthusiastic crowds greeted Brown, whose prospects sharply ascended when his candidacy was identified as an opportunity to deprive Democrats of the 60th vote required to stop debate on health-care reform, an issue that was Kennedy's lifelong quest. Chants of "Forty-one!" broke out at his campaign stops.

"I'm up in some polls, down in others," said Brown, who has based his campaign on soliciting independents and even Democrats. "We'll see tomorrow."

Several late polls suggested that Brown's remarkable surge may be pushing him beyond the dead heat where the race appeared to be a week ago. Over the weekend, Suffolk University surveyed three Massachusetts communities where past returns have mirrored statewide results, and found Brown leading by 14 to 17 percentage points.

A Brown campaign official predicted that independent voters rallying to the insurgent Republican would push turnout above 50 percent, twice that of the last special election.

"The enthusiasm is just unbelievable," said Brad Marston, a Brown campaign volunteer who was handing out placards. The placard features the candidate's name on a field of brown, and stylized lines curving in the "o" of Brown. The image, like the campaign itself, summons deliberate associations with the campaign of the president it has arrayed itself against.

"The half of my family who voted for Obama are for Brown," said Dennis Sheehan, an electrical technician from Lowell, who cheered the Senate candidate outside a Boston Bruins game. "They felt sold out. He said he'd bring the whole country together. I've never seen the country so divided in my life, and I grew up in the '60s, with Vietnam."

Brown has called his effort "the politics of hope" and, like candidate Obama did, admonished campaign workers to maintain courtesies -- at a Saturday stop in a call center in Worcester, he even complimented the "very respectful" behavior of the Democratic "trackers," the fixtures of modern campaigning who record a candidate's every move on video.

Republican operatives say they sometimes feel less like they are managing a campaign than trying to corral a movement.

"In a lot of ways, Obama's campaign was a lot like Brown's," said Joe Murphy, a sporting goods executive from Mansfield. "Catch fire and there's no stopping the momentum."

Like the Brown campaign, the Coakley operation has been thrown together in hasty formation, going from 10 field organizers working out of one office to 60 working in 14 offices in a matter of days, according to people familiar with the Democrat's get-out-the-vote team.

The people Coakley is relying on to push her across the finish line first are seasoned operatives who served as the political ground team for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential primary campaign in New England.

The initial sluggish pace of the current race -- Coakley did almost no campaigning between the Dec. 8 primary and New Year's Day -- has quickened in the final weeks, as Brown emerged from below the radar. Obama arrived Sunday to emphasize the stakes in the contest, and made a television spot.

Coakley has assembled a team of 7,000 canvassers who are going door to door, and 3,000 volunteers are making phone calls, according to a person familiar with the operation. The effort stood to benefit from the networks of the Democrats the attorney general defeated in the primary: Alan Khazei, the co-founder of AmeriCorps, finished with a list of 15,000 volunteers, and he urged them through e-mail and Facebook to support Coakley.

On Monday, Coakley aides said, twice the expected number of volunteers showed up at the office overseeing turnout in Cambridge and Somerville. More than 600,000 voters were contacted over the weekend, an official said, with the goal of million more contacts Monday and Tuesday.

Like the ceaseless campaign television commercials, the phone calls risk taking a toll on voters, especially the automated recordings known as "robo-calls."

"Obama called me. Bill Clinton called me. Curt Schilling called me. Martha Coakley. And Scott Brown's wife. All in a matter of two hours this morning," said independent Angie Carroll, 36, a restaurant cook in Fitchburg, one of Suffolk's bellwether communities. "I like Martha Coakley, but they all say the same thing."

Heidi Beck, a banquet waitress at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast where both candidates appeared, said her own politics run to the left of socialism. "I'm the child of '70s intellectuals -- arts professors," she said. "I'm voting for whoever makes Ted Kennedy roll over the slowest in his grave."

Brown's effort is also relying heavily on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, through which activists brought attention to the possibilities of Brown's candidacy. "The whole 41st-vote concept kind of went viral," said John LaRosa, a social-media entrepreneur who says he adopted "#41stVote" on Twitter and saw traffic explode about the time a Rasmussen poll had Brown closing in to within single digits.

The question is how many of Brown's Facebook friends and Twitter followers live in Massachusetts.

Kane reported from Framingham, Mass.

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