Friday, January 15, 2010

Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat to go Republican?

In November 1960 JFK won the Presidency in one of the closest elections in US history, edging out Eisenhower's Vice-President, Richard Nixon, 49.7% to 49.6% in the popular vote (although one can lose the popular vote and still win the electoral college, as Bush did in 2000). Kennedy resigned his Massachusetts Senate seat to move into the Oval Office and wanted the seat to go to his brother Ted (JFK having designated his other brother, Robert, for US Attorney General) but Ted Kennedy was not yet 30 years old, and according too young to be constitutionally eligible to serve in the US Senate. A Kennedy family friend was accordingly appointed to serve as a placeholder until Ted came of age in 1962 and a special election was held that year. Although I haven't found the quote online, I recall watching the late Bob Novak on Crossfire in the 90s claiming that "Massachusetts isn't a democracy, it's a monarchy."

In 2004, the Massachusetts state assembly withdrew the authority of the governor to fill a Senate vacancy by appointment, to prevent the then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican to fill the remainder of Democrat John Kerry's Senate term should Kerry win the 2004 presidential election. The legislation was enacted over Romney's veto. Today, just one eighth of "Taxachusetts" Senate seats and one tenth of its legislature's lower house seats are Republican.

But in August 2009, when Ted Kennedy passed away after 46 years of service in the national Senate, Massachusetts Democrats approved a bill that would allow the state's now Democratic governor to appoint an interim Senator. Appointee Paul Kirk accordingly assumed Kennedy's seat in September, pledging that he would not be a candidate in the special election. Since a three-fifths majority is required to bring out a vote of cloture and break a filibuster, Kirk's vote was critical to the healthcare reform vote that passed 60 to 40 in December, with all 40 Republicans opposed.

An election for the Senate seat will be held on Tuesday, and according to Steve Kornacki, Democrat "Martha Coakley's internal poll for Thursday night showed her trailing [Republican] Scott Brown by three points -- 47 to 44 percent."

Even if Coakley pulls this one out, national Democrats will be wringing their hands over having to commit resources to such a deep blue (thoroughly Democrat-voting) state. Obama has created an ad for Coakley and will be campaigning for Coakley in Boston this weekend. But whether Obama has ever really been the ideal politician for Masschusetts is debatable. In March 2008, for example, "Survey USA show[ed] McCain tied at 47 percent with Barack Obama; [and] Hillary Clinton beat[ing] McCain, 55-42." Still, though, it'd surely be a shock if a Republican won a state-wide race when state data in late 2006 indicated that less than 13% of the population is registered Republican, versus 37% Democrat.

It might, of course, just be Martha Coakley. Stories are circulating that, as a prosecutor, she was too lenient with respect to prosecuting accused child abusers or not lenient enough. There are also charges that she's shown a disturbing disinclination to prosecute corruption. But it seems hard to believe that someone could win a Masschusetts primary for US Senator if he or she had serious baggage; it's not like someone else could not be found!

Obama's approval ratings have been in a steep slide for months now, but January 19, just a year into his mandate, could be a key milestone in the unraveling of his power if the Democrats cannot pull a win out of this Senate race. Mass. Republicans will no doubt call it karma for the state's Dems reversing their own legislation on appointing Senators, and Clinton supporters might dare to suggest that sending in the President to campaign for the Democrat might have gone over better if that President's first name were Hillary instead of Barack.

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