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PW logo Coakley Says Schilling is a Yankee Fan Another Democrat Decides to Retire
Ensign Leads Possible Challengers Coakley Trails in Her Own Internal Poll
Quote of the Day Gillibrand Holds Large Lead Over Ford

News from the Votemaster

Massachusetts Special Election on Tuesday     Permalink

On Tuesday, a small number of Massachusetts voters are expected to go to the polls and elect a new senator to fill the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. The Democrat is state Attorney General Martha Coakley. The Republican is state senator Scott Brown. The election is important because if Brown wins, he would be the 41st vote against cloture, thus blocking the health-insurance bill now being painstakingly cobbled together by House and Senate leaders.

This election already has a somewhat sordid history. Back in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was running for President, it occurred to the Democrats in the Massachusetts state legislature that if he won, then-governor Mitt Romney (R) would appoint a Republican to the Senate. They certainly didn't want that, so they passed a bill stripping the governor of the power to appoint senators and requiring a special election to fill Senate vacancies. Romney vetoed the bill but the Democrats have 2/3 majorities in both houses of the legislature and overrode his veto. Such a procedure for filling vacancies is not unprecedented. Eight states, from Alabama to Alaska (geographically, not alphabetically) also have special elections to fill Senate vacancies.

However, when Ted Kennedy died last summer, the Democrats suddenly found themselves with only 59 votes in the Senate, not enough to invoke cloture and they certainly didn't want to wait 5 months for a special election. So national Democrats convinced the Massachusetts state legislature to pass yet another law, this time authorizing the governor (now conveniently Democrat Deval Patrick) to make a temporary appointment so Massachusetts would be fully represented in the Senate prior to the special election. In a sense, this is not unreasonable, but it is doubtful the state legislature would have done this had a Republican been sitting in the governor's chair. Gov. Patrick appointed an old friend of the Kennedy's, Paul Kirk (D), as a placeholder until the special election.

Coakley kind of assumed that all a Democrat has to do to win in Masschusetts is to stay out of jail (and sometimes even that is not needed, the poster child being James Michael Curley who once won an election while in prison). So she didn't campaign very hard but the Republican did and got his supporters excited.

One recent poll put Coakley ahead by 15 points, but another poll put Brown ahead by 1 point. That is a 16-point spread on two polls taken close together, each with a margin of error of about 4%. What gives? The problem is that special elections have a notoriously low turnout. Finding out what the general public in the state thinks is easy, but figuring out who will vote and who will not is extremely difficult. Different pollsters have different screens (if any) and that leads to these wildly different results.

During the past week, the DSCC has begun to panic and is running negative ads on Boston TV saying that if Brown wins, it will kill health-insurance reform. Brown has proudly acknowledged as much saying essentially: "If you want to kill this awful bill, vote for me." As the race becomes nationalized though, that helps Coakley since Democrats outnumber Republicans by a wide margin in Massachusetts and a close race might motivate many of them to vote on Tuesday.

If Brown wins, what happens to the health-insurance bill? Does it just die? Well, it is complicated. First, Coakley might call Al Franken and say: "Tell me what you know about long fights about election results." No doubt Franken still vaguely remembers his half-year-long battle with Norm Coleman and would advise her to contest the election and demand a recount. A recount and a bit of legal action could take months to resolve, during which time Paul Kirk remains a senator and can vote. He only loses his job when the new senator is sworn in.

Even if Coakley concedes, the certificate of election must be signed by both the Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Galvin (D) and Gov. Deval Patrick (D). Neither might be in a big hurry to sign. There is no law forcing them to sign the day after the election. The Republicans could go to court to try to force them to sign, but the court case could take weeks. And the Republicans couldn't argue that Massachusetts was not fully represented in the Senate because Sen. Kirk would still be there.

Finally, even if Brown won and was sworn in quickly, that would not necessarily mean the end of the health-insurance bill. The Senate did pass a bill on Christmas Eve. If the House were to vote on and pass exactly the same bill--word for word with zero changes--then there would be a bill that both houses of Congress passed and could go to the President to sign. Of course, House members wouldn't like having the Senate bill shoved down their throats, but if it were the Senate bill or nothing, it would get 218 votes.

Health-Insurance Bill Negotiations Still Going on     Permalink

The (secret) negotiations between Senate and House Democrats are still going on. It is assumed that the House has given up all hope of getting a public option in the bill, but there are many other contentious topics to be ironed out. These include which taxes to raise to pay for it, who is poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, language about abortion, whether the insurance industry's antitrust exemption will be eliminated, who may use the plan federal employees get, whether the new insurance exchanges are national or state-based, and more. While there are various leaks floating around, no real news is available on what has been decided. If it were easy, it would all be done before next Tuesday's election, but that won't happen. In order to try to break the stalement, President Obama is actively talking to the leaders of both chambers.

Reid Hits New Low in Poll     Permalink

A new poll shows majority leader Harry Reid's numbers continuing to sink. Now 52% have an unfavorable opinion of him and only 33% have a favorable opinion. For an incumbent, a favorable under 50% means big trouble. The poll also shows that all three (fairly unknown) Republicans running in the Republican primary would beat him.

An additional complication for Reid is that his eldest son, Rory, is running for governor. When family members of a popular politician run for office, the connections help them (think: President Kennedy's brothers) but when the politician is not popular, the voters are not likely to want to start a dynasty.

Nevertheless, in politics, a week is a long time. If Reid manages to herd his cats and gets a health-insurance bill passed, this will be the biggest health-related legislation since Medicare passed in 1965. Reid will surely get a lot of credit for that. Republicans thinking that Reid is an easy target should also be careful of what they wish for. While it is true that Reid's defeat would give them an extra seat in the Senate (which could be compensated for by Democratic wins in Missouri, Ohio, Delaware, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Florida, or elsewhere), but it would also mean the Democrats would have to elect a new majority leader. Currently #2 is Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and #3 is Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), both far more liberal and far more aggressive than Reid. If Schumer did not mount a challenge, Durbin would surely become the new leader. However, Schumer is a street brawler from Brooklyn and might decide to challenge Reid. He would immediately get the 14 votes of the senators he elected while chairman of the DSCC plus Kirsten Gillibrand if she is elected. That's half of what he would need. He would then need about 1/3 of the remaining Democratic senators.

Harold Ford Thinking of Challenging Gillibrand     Permalink

Former representative Harold Ford, who moved to New York after losing a bruising Senate battle in Tennessee in 2006, is seriously considering running against appointed senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a Senate primary. He is currently Vice President of Merrill Lynch and would attack Gillibrand from the right. It would be a very nasty (and expensive) battle. Gillibrand would no doubt attack him by saying something like the big banks feel they didn't get enough free money from the taxpayers, so they want their own senator. She would also excoriate him for changing his position on abortion, gay marriage, and a number of other issues in the past year. Ford's statement that as a Democratic senator he would not let Harry Reid tell him how to vote sounds like: "a vote for me is a vote for another Joe Lieberman," definitely not a winning proposition with Lieberman's approval rating currently at 14%. She could also try calling him a carpetbagger, but that doesn't carry much weight in New York Senate races (see: Clinton, Hillary, and Kennedy, Robert).

He could attack her right back, of course, but attacking a woman is always tricky, especially when the woman is not tremendously controversial and women comprise more than half the voters. The entire Democratic establishment would be on Gillibrand's side so it would be an extremely messy battle.

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