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Massachusetts Senate Race: Thinking the Unthinkable

It’s difficult for any handicapper, professional or amateur, to think the unthinkable. And Republican Scott Brown defeating Attorney General Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate special election to fill the remainder of the term of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) certainly would have been unthinkable even a month ago.

But it is unthinkable no more. The Coakley-Brown race was a tossup going into the weekend before the special election. That conclusion was based on the parties’ behavior and, more importantly, both public and private survey data.

While Democratic efforts to nationalize the Senate contest, by interjecting President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton into the race, and to make the contest into a tribute to the late Senator, by using his widow, Vicki, in an ad, may help Coakley pull out a win, the race has turned out to be a disaster for the national party.

Coakley has received plenty of criticism from Democrats who are familiar with her campaign, and she will get much of the blame from Democrats if she loses.

But this is Massachusetts — and the Kennedy seat — and the ability of a largely unknown, initially underfunded Republican to run as strongly as Brown has in a race against the state’s Democratic attorney general — with health care on the line — is stunning.

Coakley’s campaign is only one part of the equation. National forces clearly are at play here, helping Brown run on change and against Democratic control of Washington, D.C.

If Brown wins, and he may, it will be the biggest political upset of my adult life. Some have compared a possible Republican win to Democrat Harris Wofford’s 1991 Pennsylvania special election Senate victory over Republican Dick Thornburgh, who was U.S. attorney general. But to me, a Brown win would be much bigger.

Savvy veteran Republican political observers are as stunned as I am about what has happened — and what may happen — in the Bay State.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee played this one very close to the vest.

While some journalists and political strategists across the partisan and ideological spectrum (including those at the Club for Growth who reportedly were initially upset at the NRSC and RNC) criticized the GOP’s campaign arm last week for not putting money into the race, the reality is quite different.

In fact, the NRSC had, a full week earlier, transferred $500,000 to the Massachusetts Republican Party to support Brown’s candidacy. For obvious reasons, the committee opted to keep that move quiet.

And the NRSC also got the Republican National Committee to agree to send funds to the Massachusetts GOP.

A Brown victory — or even a narrow Coakley win in the mid-single digits — could have significant ramifications. First, it could well produce a flurry of Democratic retirements. If Democrats couldn’t hold Kennedy’s seat rather easily with the state attorney general, some Democratic Members will worry, how the heck can they win in November in competitive districts.

GOP strategists are already compiling a list of possible retirees if Brown wins, including Reps. John Spratt (S.C.), Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

A victory by the Republican in the special election could dissuade some Democratic incumbents from investing 10 months in a re-election bid that suddenly would seem dramatically less likely of success.

A strong Brown showing could also lead to another round of GOP recruiting successes, as candidates who have been on the fence, or initially rejected appeals to run, decide that a Republican wave is building for November and they better get on it.

And third, Brown’s showing, if it is as good as current evidence suggests, could foreshadow a surge in national GOP fundraising.

Brown’s own fundraising during the last week has been nothing short of amazing. He raised $4.5 million on the Internet over three days early in the week, giving him plenty of resources in the final week of the campaign.

If Brown can raise money like that, other Republicans should be able to do so if they can make their case to the party faithful. That’s a potentially dramatic development for House and Senate Republican campaign committees, who trail their Democratic counterparts and would love to see their nominees raise more campaign cash.

Finally, a strong Brown showing, and especially a Republican victory, will add to the increasingly dominant narrative about the cycle, which holds that Democrats are headed for defeat during the midterms. This could put Democrats further on the defensive and spell the end to much of the president’s ambitious agenda for the rest of 2010.

If you are looking for an analogy for a Republican victory in Massachusetts, the best one for Democrats may well be the stock market crash of 1929. Come Tuesday night, you could have Democrats jumping out windows and off roofs ...

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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