By JON KELLER for the Wall Street Journal
With characteristic hubris, people in this state like to think they’ve been at the leading edge of American politics since the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1775. And in the past few years, we’ve given the nation a preview of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with Deval Patrick’s successful 2006 bid for governor; provided a critical boost for Mr. Obama’s candidacy in the form of an endorsement by Edward Kennedy; and enacted a health-care law that is a template for ObamaCare.
But hubris has yielded to shock here at the possibility that the next political trend the Bay State might foreshadow is a voter backlash against the Democratic Party.
After Kennedy’s death in August, few imagined there would be any problem replacing him with another Democrat in the U.S. Senate. It’s been 16 years since Massachusetts elected a Republican to a congressional seat, 31 years since the last Republican senator left office. Gov. Patrick appointed a former Kennedy aide as the interim senator, and Democratic primary voters chose the well-regarded state Attorney General Martha Coakley as their nominee for the special election.
That election, which will be held on Tuesday, was widely seen as a formality. Ms. Coakley coasted through the holiday season while the GOP challenger, little-known state Sen. Scott Brown, scrambled for traction.
The new year, however, brought polls showing the race tightening. This week a Rasmussen Reports poll gave Ms. Coakley a slim 49% to 47% advantage; a Suffolk University survey has Mr. Brown with a narrow lead. Independents are breaking for Mr. Brown by a three-to-one margin, Rasmussen finds. And many people do not realize that independents outnumber Democrats—51% of registered voters in the state are not affiliated with a party, while 37% are registered as Democrats and 11% as Republicans.
“Around the country they look at Massachusetts and just write us off,” longtime local activist Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government told me. “But people around here are really not happy with the extremes in the Democrat Party.”
Those extremes are cropping up as issues in this race. One is giving civilian legal rights to terror suspects, which Ms. Coakley supports. Mr. Brown, a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, hammered her for that even before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day. That incident has tried the patience of an electorate normally known for its civil libertarianism. Rasmussen’s most recent survey found that 65% of them want Abdulmutallab tried by the military.
Another issue is taxes. Mr. Brown has scolded Ms. Coakley for supporting a repeal of the Bush tax cuts, for entertaining the idea of passing a “war tax,” and for proclaiming in a recent debate that “we need to get taxes up.” Ms. Coakley says she meant that tax revenues, not rates, need to rebound. Nonetheless, Mr. Brown’s critique resonates with voters who are smarting from a 25% hike in sales tax last year.
Gov. Patrick’s approval ratings have also crashed, fertilizing the soil for Mr. Brown’s claim in a radio ad that “our government in Washington is making the same mistakes as our government here in Massachusetts.”
But nothing excites Mr. Brown’s supporters more than his vow to stop ObamaCare by denying Democrats the 60th vote they would need in the U.S. Senate to shut off a GOP filibuster. The Rasmussen and Suffolk polls report that once-overwhelming statewide support for the federal health reform has fallen to a wafer-thin majority.
Support for the state’s universal health-care law, close to 70% in 2008, is also in free fall; only 32% of state residents told Rasmussen earlier this month that they’d call it a success, with 36% labeling it a failure. The rest were unsure. Massachusetts families pay the country’s highest health insurance premiums, with costs soaring at a rate 7% ahead of the national average, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund.
Doubt about the Massachusetts health-care reform “does not necessarily translate into opposition to the federal bill,” cautions veteran local Democratic strategist Stephen Crawford, who is not working for any candidate in the Senate race. “I don’t think opposition to the plan is going to be a make-or-break issue.” That’s a far cry from the once widely-held belief here that the Democratic nominee would be hustled into office by voters eager to pass ObamaCare. But it reflects a conviction among local Democratic elites that antitax and anti-big-government politics are “a tired strategy, the same old Karl Rove playbook,” as Mr. Crawford puts it.
On Tuesday, we’ll have a reading on whether that complacency is justified. It may not be definitive; barely two in 10 voters voted in the primaries, and turnout, especially if it is short on independents, could render the outcome a road test for each party’s get-out-the-vote machinery. Here that’s akin to a drag race between a Democratic Cadillac fueled with high-octane labor support and a GOP go-kart driven by pedal power. But the long-range weather forecast for the Election Day is clear. There are anecdotal reports of brisk absentee voting, a practice often driven by the state’s small but aggressive pro-life faction. And the polls show a sharp enthusiasm gap in Mr. Brown’s favor.
Tellingly, the usually-demure Ms. Coakley has been scorching Mr. Brown with a tired strategy out of the Obama campaign playbook, linking him to “the failed policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.” Mr. Brown counters by linking Ms. Coakley to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Deval Patrick—people actually in power.
Are we in for another shot heard ’round the world? Perhaps. More likely, listen for the sound of horse hooves on the pavement, and a modern-day version of Paul Revere’s historic warning—the backlash is coming.