Monday, January 18, 2010

Inside the Head of a Massachusetts Independent

OK, America, I can't claim to know what is going to happen in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race tomorrow, but I have been watching the cable news and there are a few things they aren't telling you about the independent voters who are fueling Republican Scott Brown's campaign against Democrat Martha Coakley.

Only 3 weeks ago the Massachusetts Senate seat appeared to be Democrat Martha Coakley's to lose, but many independents were still undecided. In the final week before the tomorrow's vote, it's become a toss-up. The reason why is simple. Independents in Massachusetts have gone on revolt against the Democratic Party in Congress.

These revolts are not uncommon here. Democrats trump Republicans in Massachusetts, but independents trump Democrats.

The danger for Democrats in losing independents can be seen in the 2008 Presidential election results: 1.9 million Massachusetts residents voted for Barack Obama and 1.1 million voted for John McCain, a margin of 62% to 36%. That margin of victory is typical for Democratic candidates against Republicans in Massachusetts.

But that big margin of victory includes 800,000 independents for Obama. If half of them had joined the 500,000 independents who voted for McCain, then you'd have a toss-up.

Usually the independents side with the Democrats in Massachusetts, but there is a history of periodic revolts where enough independents join Republicans to elect candidates or pass ballot initiatives:

1980 - Passed Proposition 2 1/2 to limit property tax increases and backed Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for President.

1990 - Elected Republican Governor Bill Weld and Treasurer Joe Malone.

1994 - Repealed rent control.

2002 - Elected Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

As the gaps in these dates indicate, we are due for another revolt.

Sometimes these revolts carry over to the next election, sometimes they don't. Ronald Reagan repeated in Massachusetts against Walter Mondale in 1984. Governor Bill Weld got himself reelected in 1994 and got his successor Paul Celluci elected in 1998. Mitt Romney failed to ignite a revolt against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and failed to get his successor Kerry Healy elected Governor in 2006.

How do these revolts get started? Every Republican candidate for statewide office in Massachusetts would like to win the independent vote but few succeed. There are no independent party leaders or ward bosses to consult. It can't even be said that every independent goes on revolt for the same reason.

A revolt against the state Democratic Party has been growing for some time. The current Democratic Governor Deval Patrick is widely regarded as ineffectual. Tim Cahill, the current state Treasurer, resigned from the Democratic Party this fall (but not his job as Treasurer) to run against him as an independent. A recent poll showed Cahill with 23% compared to 30% for Patrick and 19% for the likely Republican challenger Charlie Baker with 28% undecided.

Those 28% just haven’t decided whether they are voting for Cahill or Baker. And why should they, that election isn’t until November. But the pitchforks were already being sharpened and State Attorney General Martha Coakley presents a more immediate target in tomorrow's special election.

This special election is about health care reform, but not in the way that you might think. Massachusetts already has health care insurance reform at the state level, and as a result now 98% of our residents have health insurance. Republican Scott Brown supports health care reform in Massachusetts, and voted for it as a State Senator. In fact some on his campaign staff are on the Massachusetts Health Connector.

Democrats in Congress are having trouble passing a good health care reform bill, and a lot of people here are frustrated. One friend has described the debate in Congress to me as "asinine." Another, who has worked in the state health care bureaucracy, has expressed concern to me that the legislation in Congress will undermine some important aspects of the new system we set up here.

I expect both those friends will vote for Martha Coakley, but other voters with concerns won't. Since we already have health care insurance reform, Massachusetts has the least to gain from federal legislation and the most to lose from a bad bill.

Democrats in Congress made a big mistake when, after the health care reform bill passed the Senate, they decided to conduct negotiations between House and Senate behind closed doors. That annoyed some Obama supporters who had been promised an open process, and it also angered many independents.

Up to that point, Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe had been in the room for the negotiations. She is one of those centrist New England Republicans that conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity hate almost as much as they hate Barack Obama. But a category of Massachusetts independent looks to centrists like Olympia Snowe (or Bill Weld, or Mitt Romney back when he was a centrist) to look out for their interests.

It's not that these independents necessarily agree with centrist Republicans on all issues, it's that they just don't completely trust the Democrats. They want someone to watch over the Democrats' shoulder.

So when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid closed the door and locked Olympia Snowe out of the room, they locked independents out of the room too. They want back in that room. And some independents are prepared to use Scott Brown as a battering ram to knock that door down.

That brings us to the central idea of this campaign, that Martha Coakley will be the 60th vote in the Senate for health care reform and that Scott Brown will be the 41st vote against.

That is a bit misleading, because the Senate has already passed the health care reform bill. All the House has to do is pass it too without changes and health care reform will become law with President Obama's signature.

So Scott Brown can't stop health care reform, he can only stop a revised bill that might come out from behind that closed door. That may be lost on most voters, but it is not lost on all. Some independents might vote for Scott Brown as a cloture motion, with the message to Congress to stop debating and pass the current bill.

After all, this health care reform debate has been going since August and there are other things for Congress to work on, like the economy and job creation. This revolt is as much about what Congress is not doing on those issues as what it is contemplating on health care.

Nancy Pelosi is already whispering that she won't pass the Senate bill as written if it comes to that. So blame Pelosi not Massachusetts independents if health care reform stalls.

In fact, it's not clear Congress can get health care reform passed even if Martha Coakley is elected here in Massachusetts. Coakley has promised to vote against health care reform unless it contains language on abortion that more conservative Democrats in Congress may find unacceptable. That could prove the cruelest irony of all.

Finally, many union members are independents. They usually vote Democratic but often aren't liberals. Unions quietly helped to scuttle HillaryCare in 1993, they may want to do the same with ObamaCare in 2010, and the Massachusetts race presents an opportunity to do so without leaving any fingerprints. Unions don't like the so-called "Cadillac health plan tax" which might hit some union health care plans. And universal health care interferes with one of the primary union organizing tools, promising to get health benefits for workers who don't have benefits.

So, if Martha Coakley loses or squeaks by tomorrow, does Barack Obama need to worry about losing Massachusetts when he runs for reelection in 2012? Probably not. Can an independent vote for Obama in 2008, Brown in 2010, and Obama again in 2012? Yes, we can. So far none of these revolts has changed the basic character of Massachusetts as a Democratic state (with an independent majority). But it is a state Democrats take for granted at their own risk.

And I don't even think this vote necessarily represents any change in independent voter attitudes, which have been none too fond of the Democrats in Congress.

One need look no further than Minnesota, where Democrats got this 60th Senate vote that they are now afraid of losing. Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman battled essentially to a tie. They each got 1.2 million votes, within the margin of lawyering (eventually the recount went to Franken by 312 votes).

But 437,000 in Minnesota voted for Dean Barkley, the independent candidate. Barack Obama beat John McCain by 300,000 votes in Minnesota. Independents clearly provided Obama a big margin of victory and declined to give the same vote to Franken.

All of this could be moot, because of a factor that was driving the race up until 8 days ago. And that is the chance for Massachusetts to elect its first woman to the U.S. Senate. If you accept the notion that Obama's Presidency is on the line, middle-aged and elderly white women still bitter about Hillary Clinton's loss in 2008 could rescue his Presidency.

What to watch for when the vote comes in Tuesday night (polls close at 8pm EST):

(1) Greater Boston - Martha Coakley needs a big margin of victory to cancel Scott Brown support across the rest of the state.

(2) Fall River and New Bedford - This is Barney Frank's Congressional District, but is also close to Scott Brown's base in Wrentham.

(3) Lowell - Congresswoman Nicki Tsongas there has been Martha Coakley's most consistent supporter, and she has credibility with independents.

(4) Western suburbs of Boston - Scott Brown put his campaign headquarters in Needham with the hope of doing well in Minuteman country.

(5) Exit polls - assuming no more than 15% of registered Democrats join the revolt, Scott Brown needs 70% of independents to win. If he doesn't get that, Martha Coakley wins.

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