Over the past few days, polls have shown Republican Scott Brown within striking distance of the state’s Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley’s 30% lead in October fell to 15% at the start of this month and, in the two polls released in the three days, Coakley records a 9% lead in one while the other shows Brown edging the Democrat by 1%.
An eminently likeable State Senator, Brown has performed well in television debates and has managed to put some distance between his message and that of national Republicans who have wisely avoided getting involved in the race. His campaign adverts have directly quoted John F. Kennedy's comments on the importance of tax cuts, featured images of him in National Guard uniform and touted his socially-moderate credentials.
Coakley, on the other hand, is a rather chilly personality whose campaign has been based more around her party label than her notable achievements as both the state's Attorney General and the former District Attorney of the state's largest county. In the dying days of the campaign she appears to be training her fire on Brown's rather tenuous links to the Bush administration and opposition to abortion (this rather effective ad went live yesterday).
Brown has already hit back with a personally-grounded ad critical of Coakley's partisanship. His two daughters, one of them a local celebrity following her semi-final appearance on the US version of Pop Idol, have hit the airwaves directly answering allegations he would block the provision of emergency contraceptives to rape victims ("my Dad would always stand up for the rights and needs of rape victims, and he’s kind, understanding and he’s a very compassionate father and man").
When all's said and done, Coakley's strategy will probably pay off.
Despite Brown's impressive fundraising haul in recent days, she retains a significant financial advantage over the Republican. To add to this, Massachusetts voters gave Barack Obama 62% of the vote last year and last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1978.
Electorally-speaking, however, stranger things have happened than a Brown victory.
In the months leading up to the Presidential election last year, Democratic challengers won “special elections” (by-elections) for open Congressional seats in Louisiana and Mississippi which had backed George W. Bush by equally impressive margins in 2004.
The outcome of US special elections, particularly those taking place in states under a thick blanket of snow and battered by chilly breezes, is largely driven by turnout – which rarely climbs above 25%. Barack Obama remains relatively popular in Massachusetts but the same cannot be said of Democratic Governor Deval Patrick whose approval rating stands at a positively Bushesque 22%.
Even in a state as blue as Massachusetts, a motivated Republican base has the ability to defeat the dominant Democratic machine. Republicans held the Governor's mansion from 1990 to 2006, most recently under Mitt Romney.
For both Democrats and Republicans, the implications of a Brown victory cannot be underestimated.
A Brown victory would instantly deny Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid the 60-vote super-majority he needs in order to prevent the Republican Senators from filibustering key votes on healthcare reform and the President’s judicial nominees. The longest-serving member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation Ed Markey is far from sanguine about a Coakley loss saying that "if we don't win this, 2010 will be hell for Democrats".
Legislatively-speaking, a Brown victory would do little more for the Republicans than strengthen the ability of the “party of no” to say “no” just that little forcefully. It would, however, act as a major shot in the arm for activists and congressional challengers across the country for whom electoral annihilation has become a way of life over the past four years.
Come Tuesday, all eyes will be on the Bay State.