The Jan. 19 special election to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat is beginning to resemble the 2008 presidential election, when the "inevitable" Hillary Clinton was overtaken by a surprising phenomenon named Barack Obama.
Only this time, it's a wunderkind from the right overtaking an overconfident woman on the left.
Conventional wisdom in Massachusetts has long held that Attorney General Martha Coakley would sail into Kennedy's seat as a natural heiress, without having to stock up on hand sanitizer. She's a liberal Democrat in tune with Kennedy's philosophy and ready to cast her votes accordingly.
But something has happened the past couple of months. State Sen. Scott Brown, a relative pauper when it comes to political spending, has been closing in. While Coakley has been drumming her fingers until fate gets on with it, Brown has been standing on street corners, holding up signs, delivering posters and putting 200,000 miles on his pickup truck.
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At last count, he was just nine points down, compared with 31 in November. According to one GOP insider, "that intangible thing known as momentum is on Brown's side."
Who the heck is Scott Brown? Start with this: He's Joe Six-Pack with a law degree and 30 years in the National Guard. A lieutenant colonel with the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, he's also a triathlete and a Mr. Mom to his busy wife, Boston TV news reporter Gail Huff. The couple have two daughters, one of whom, Ayla, was a 2006 "American Idol" semifinalist and is a star basketball player on a four-year scholarship at Boston College. The other, Arianna, is a premed student at Syracuse.
This near-perfect picture has a few thumbprints, especially on a certain Cosmopolitan spread for which Brown posed half a lifetime ago trying to raise law school tuition money. The photo, which conceals that which matters, may be a yawn to family and friends, but it's the sort of delicious peek into a politician's past that can't be ignored. It also probably can't hurt him, though it's unlikely a woman candidate could as easily shrug off a similar "gag."
C'est la gender guerre.
In any case, Brown's more compelling package concerns issues, his positions on which are not so easily categorized along party lines. He supports women's right to choose, for instance, though he opposes partial-birth abortion and federal funding for abortion, and believes in strong parental notification laws. He opposes same-sex marriage, but believes the decision should be left to states. He would not vote to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, but does not favor a federal constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between a man and a woman.
On fiscal matters, he favors tax cuts, opposes the current government expansion, and would oppose a second stimulus bill. He has praised President Obama for both his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan as well as taking his time arriving at that decision. He criticized the president for being "too slow" in responding to the panty-bomber and thinks we should treat terrorists as war criminals, trying them in military courts.
On all but Brown's support of choice, Coakley can be clocked as taking the opposite view. Which means that, by comparison, Brown is very much mainstream in a nation that defines itself as mostly conservative. A recent Gallup poll found that by the end of 2009, 40 percent of Americans self-identified as conservative; moderates made up 36 percent; and 21 percent of Americans self-identified as liberal.
One political observer describes Brown as a "JFK Republican." A Brown ad, in fact, features a 1962 Kennedy speech in which the then-president called for broad-based tax cuts to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Brown's campaign advisers apparently felt confident enough in the message to risk the obvious Lloyd Bentsen rebuttal: "I knew Jack Kennedy. ... You're no Jack Kennedy."
Be that as it may, Brown just might be in sync with enough voters, not to mention tea partiers who have a habit of tossing coins at anti-tax candidates, to overtake his opponent. Despite Coakley's nine-point lead, Brown is ahead among the ever-important independents, who make up 51 percent of the state electorate. Among independents, Brown leads 3-to-1.
A Brown victory in one of the nation's bluest states would be as surprising as the rise of a young black senator to the presidency in 2008. It also would be a stunning referendum on the Obama administration. A phenomenon, if you will.