Democrats lose races in Massachusetts about as often as the Harlem Globetrotters lose basketball games, which is why today’s special election in that state is so interesting.
Some polls last week indicated that Republican candidate Scott Brown, a state senator, has a chance to beat Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley in today’s balloting to fill the U.S. Senate seat held until last year by Edward Kennedy. Coakley had been expected to coast to an easy victory, and she tried coasting, but both parties put the electioneering pedal to the metal when Brown suddenly seemed to have a chance to win. President Obama hastily announced plans for a last-minute trip to the state this weekend to try to bolster Coakley’s flagging effort.
Republicans are salivating at the prospect of pulling off an upset. Massachusetts is currently the only state where Democrats hold all congressional seats and all statewide elected offices. The Bay State has not sent a Republican to Congress since 1994, and in the 2008 presidential election, Obama received nearly 62 percent of the Massachusetts vote.
Moreover, a Republican win would cut the Democratic margin in the Senate to 59-41, counting the two independents who caucus with the Democrats. That would leave the majority party one vote shy of the magic 60 votes needed to overcome Republican filibusters on controversial legislation, including the pending health care reform.
Of course, we are talking about Massachusetts, where rules are rules until the people who make the rules find it expedient to change them.
Just before Kennedy died last year, he called on the state to change its laws so the governor could appoint an interim replacement to fill his seat until the special election could be held. The Legislature complied, and Gov. Deval Patrick appointed Democrat Paul Kirk, who will serve until the winner of today’s vote takes office.
Not long ago, there would have been no need to change the law in that situation, because the governor already had the power to appoint interim senators and representatives. But in 2004 the Legislature took away that power because Democratic lawmakers feared that, if Sen. John Kerry won the presidency, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would choose a Republican to replace him. But, in the face of Kennedy’s death and with Patrick in office, Democrats decided to go back to the old way to make sure they kept those 60 votes.
Until Brown’s late surge in the polls, it scarcely occurred to Democrats that voters might have other ideas.
Still, Democrats see no reason why an adverse election result should stop them. Before the new senator can take office, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin must certify the election results. The process could take about two weeks, Galvin said. In the meantime, Brown would be prevented from casting any key votes and Kirk would continue to serve.
In 2007, Galvin was able to certify a special election for a House seat in a few days, allowing Democrat Niki Tsongas to take office almost immediately after her narrow victory. Things are different in the Senate, Galvin says. Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin, explained that Tsongas was sworn in on the basis of a letter from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office saying that unofficial tallies indicated she was the winner. "That was sufficient for the House,” McNiff said.
Seating senators chosen in special elections does not always take so long. In 1996 Sam Brownback took office only two days after he defeated Sheila Frahm in a Kansas special election. The longest delay was in 1994, when it took 24 days before Fred Thompson of Tennessee assumed office after winning a special election to fill Al Gore’s vacated Senate seat. Given the wide range, Democrats in Massachusetts will be able to do what they love best: Play it one way if the Republican wins and another if the Democrat wins. While it might take several weeks to certify a Brown victory, Galvin could manage to certify a Coakley victory sooner than that.
In the end, the Democrats will probably get their way, at least on the health care vote. Either by electoral victory or by procedural manipulation, they will make sure that two Democratic senators from Massachusetts file into the Senate chamber when that roll call is taken.
But the fact that the party can no longer count on winning a Massachusetts election is a sign that the balance of power may be shifting. If the polls for today’s election are any indicator of larger political trends, expect to see a lot more red on the election maps in November.