A Race to Watch

Since the late death of Senator Edward Kennedy, his seat has been temporarily filled by former aide Paul Kirk. Things are set to change on January 19th, when the state will hold a special election to replace Mr. Kennedy. Attorney General Martha Coakley is running as the Democratic candidate, against Republican State Senator Scott Brown.

A number of political analysts have labeled this special election as a race-to-watch, to get a measure of the nation’s public mood. Back in the day, this is what presidential primaries were designed to do in the absence of good polling. Today polls have become more reliable, but different pollsters may perceive the electorate differently. And sometimes they still get things wrong. There is nothing like a good-old election to make things clearer.

If, as conservatives claim, Americans are moving back to the Republican column, then Ms. Coakley will win by less than expected for a Massachusetts Democrat. In the absolute worst case scenario, she may even lose altogether. On the other hand, if the election proves a cakewalk for Ms. Coakley – she defeats Mr. Brown by a comfortable margin – Democrats can breathe a sign of relief.

This race contains several complications, some favoring Democrats and some favoring Republicans. Happily for Republicans, third-party candidate Joseph Kennedy is also running, although he bears no relation to the famed Kennedy family. Low-information Democrats may press the Kennedy button because of his last name, lowering Coakley’s margin.

On the other hand, Democrats can derive satisfaction from their candidate’s relative strength. Although she doesn’t exactly arouse passion, Coakley retains high favorables and a career absenced by scandal. Brown, on the other hand, faces the hurdle of low name recognition. His stands on issues, moreover, seem standard Republican fare: he opposes the entire Democratic program, while supporting lower taxes, a strong military, the death penalty, abortion restrictions, guns, etc, etc. Massachusetts is a bit too liberal for this stuff.

All in all, this election is as close as one can get to generic Democrat versus generic Republican. In 2008, President Barack Obama won Massachusetts by a good 25.81% – making for an 18.55% Democratic lean. If in two weeks Martha Coakley gets fairly close to these margins, Democrats will be very happy. Most pundits, however, expect a Coakley victory ranging in the low double-digits; something like 55% to 43%. This would indicate Democrats are badly off, but probably strong enough to still hold the House. Anything below double-digits would be quite ominous for next year’s elections, especially a Coakley margin within 5%.

Finally, if generic Republican Scott Brown actually won, replacing the late Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts would be represented by a Republican Senator for the first time since 1978. And Democrats would have extremely good reason to be concerned come next November.

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