The close Senate contest in usually reliably blue Massachusetts - a race that could prove crucial to the fate of President Obama’s agenda - got tighter and uglier Thursday as the Democratic Party fought to hold on to the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Republican Scott Brown, who has tapped into widespread anger over health care reforms and the economy, surged to within two percentage points of Democrat Martha Coakley in the latest polling. The Rothenberg Political Report and the Cook Political Report, the two leading political handicapping services, shifted the race to the “tossup” category - in a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress since 1994 or to the Senate since 1972.
Democratic officials insisted they were not in panic mode, but the national party’s campaign arm sent out a desperate fundraising plea linking Mr. Brown, a once little-known state senator, to the conservative “tea party” movement. Mrs. Coakley, the state attorney general, stepped up her attacks by accusing Mr. Brown of “trying to run away from his right-wing record and the extreme groups that support him.”
Massachusetts Republican Party spokeswoman Tarah Donoghue said the Coakley campaign was stooping to “desperate and dirty campaign tactics” as the race tightened.
A Coakley loss in the special election Tuesday would have far-reaching implications for Mr. Obama and his party, ending the Senate Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority and jeopardizing Mr. Obama’s health care reform proposal and other domestic initiatives. It also would send a chilling message to all Democratic candidates on the ballot in November, even those in supposedly safe seats.
Rumors swirled that Mr. Obama would fly north to stump for the embattled Democrat, though the White House previously said the visit was not on the schedule.
Mr. Obama did send out an e-mail and appeared in a online video to rally support for Mrs. Coakley.
“What happens in Tuesday’s special election is vitally important for your state and our country - for the fate of health reform, our fight to curb Wall Street abuses, our efforts to create a new, clean-energy economy, and so much more,” the president said.
Both sides called in the political big guns for stump support. Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, were slated to campaign Friday with Mrs. Coakley, the same day former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, appears with Mr. Brown.
Democratic Party leaders were slow to recognize the spread of the anti-government tea party sentiment to a Democratic stronghold like Massachusetts, in a race that was once projected to be a cakewalk for Mrs. Coakley.
The national party and the Coakley campaign are fighting back by trying to paint Mr. Brown as a right-wing extremist and criticizing his support from tea party groups in the state and across the country, which helped him raise a jaw-dropping $1.3 million in just 24 hours earlier this week.
Democratic officials said that the support for Mr. Brown from tea party groups would help galvanize the Democratic base, which is crucial for the party to prevail in the heavily Democratic state and in a special election that typically draws lower voter turnout.
But tea party activists in Massachusetts said the state’s Democrats and independents are “disgusted” with the way the government is being run, citing the health care legislation, the weak job market, national security and illegal immigration.
“People across the board are just disgusted,” said Lisa Martin, organizer for the Plymouth Rock Tea Party in Carver, Mass. “The policies coming out are not for the greater good of the people. The polls don’t lie.”