IT IS rare in the history of U.S. politics for an election for an office other than president to have profound consequences for the future of our nation. But one such election is Tuesday, when voters in Massachusetts will select someone to fill the two remaining years of the U.S. Senate term of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Part of the reason why this election is more important than almost every other Senate race in history is arithmetical. Democrats have 60 senators, including Paul Kirk, who was appointed to keep the seat warm after Senator Kennedy died last August. Democrats need 60 votes to end filibusters. If the Republican candidate, state Sen. Scott Brown, defeats the Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, Democrats will have only 59.
In a normal year, this arithmetic would be academic. There are three times as many registered Democrats in Massachusetts as registered Republicans. Senator Kennedy won his last race by 38 percentage points. The state's other Democratic senator, John Kerry - to whom no one has ever applied the world "charisma" - received more than twice as many votes as his GOP opponent the last time he ran. A yellow dog running on the Democratic line ought to be able to defeat any Republican by at least 20 points.
Democrats probably wish they'd nominated a yellow dog instead of Ms. Coakley, because most recent polls indicate the race is a statistical tie.
A perfect storm is required to elect a Republican statewide in Massachusetts. But it may have formed.
First, this is a special election, where Democratic turnout traditionally has been lower.
Second, Mr. Brown, a handsome, affable man who speaks well and works hard, is a very good candidate.
Third, Ms. Coakley isn't. She coasted after the Democratic primary, thinking the general election was just a formality. She's taken positions unpopular even in liberal Massachusetts, displaying both arrogance and astonishing gaps in knowledge.
Fourth and most important, independents - the largest voting bloc in Massachusetts - really dislike both Obamacare and Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, to whom Ms. Coakley is linked.
But independents do like Mr. Brown. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, noted his favorable to unfavorable ratio is higher than it was for Bob McDonnell, who was elected governor of Virginia in a landslide last November, and for Chris Christie, who unseated an incumbent Democratic governor in heavily Democratic New Jersey.
The sheer weight of numbers still should make Ms. Coakley the favorite. But favorites don't go negative in the final week of a campaign, as Ms. Coakley has, clumsily. In one attack ad, she misspelled "Massachusetts." She linked Mr. Brown to "Washington Republicans" George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh, neither of whom reside in Washington.
Panicked national Democrats poured more than a million dollars into the Coakley campaign in the last week. Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries - fearful that a critical vote for Obamacare may be slipping from their grasp - held a fund raiser for her in Washington last Tuesday.
Voters in Massachusetts heard lots about the fund raiser, because immediately after it wrapped up a Coakley aide assaulted a reporter who asked a question Ms. Coakley did not want to answer. The day before, Mr. Brown raised more than $1.3 million online, nearly all of it in small contributions from individuals.
Mr. Brown's online fund raising was boosted by a boffo performance in his debate with Ms. Coakley at the University of Massachusetts in Boston Jan. 11. An incident outside the debate hall suggests the last-minute bucks from special-interest groups may not be enough to pull it out for the Democrat.
Standing in the cold were two union members holding Coakley signs. Ms. Coakley strode past them without comment. Scott Brown went over and said hello. The union members said they were only there holding the signs because they'd been paid $50 to do it, and they both intended to vote for Mr. Brown.
Democrats in Massachusetts say if Mr. Brown wins, they may delay his swearing-in so he can't be the 41st vote against Obamacare. But this tactic may not work because of the shiver of fear a GOP win in Massachusetts would send down the spines of Democrats in Congress. If a Democrat can lose there, a Democrat can lose anywhere.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org