With the Massachusetts Senate special election less than two weeks away, Scott Brown is framing himself as the GOP’s last hope to stop Democratic health care legislation, an approach that could provide both parties with an early glimpse at the political resonance of the issue.
As the underdog GOP nominee in one of the most Democratic states in the nation, the state senator’s message has been simple: If he upsets Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley in the Jan. 19 election to fill the seat once held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, he will provide the critical vote to halt the Democrats’ health care bill once the final version is negotiated.
“If you feel that Washington and the health care bill that they’re proposing is systemic of the problems in Washington and the failure to understand average people anymore, then you vote for me because as the 41st senator I can stop a lot of this stuff in its tracks,” Brown told POLITICO. “I can actually force them to go back to the drawing board.”
In 2006, under then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, Massachusetts passed its own version of statewide health care requiring all residents to purchase an insurance plan or face penalties. It was a plan that Brown, a state senator, voted for but he now says those rising costs should lead to a re-evaluation of some options and that health care should be done on a state level.
At a news conference last week in Boston, Brown announced he would introduce a bill on Beacon Hill designed to control costs in the state’s health care system by reviewing mandated insurance coverages. He pointed to chiropractic services, in vitro fertilization and alcoholism treatment programs as examples of required coverage that many consumers don’t need but are paid for by their monthly premium.
Brown’s bill calls for allowing people to purchase insurance coverage that better suits their personal medical needs.
Coakley immediately blasted Brown’s effort, saying it would reduce needed coverage for women and seniors while only minimally driving costs down.
“We don’t think Massachusetts voters are going to agree with that direction that he’s proposed,” said Coakley spokesman Corey Welford. “One of the important ways to reduce costs that is to tackle this on a national level, and that’s what the Senate bill would do. Scott Brown’s solution would do nothing about it on a national level except reduce coverage.”
Massachusetts Republicans say that health care is exactly the message Brown should be pounding on in the special election homestretch.
“If Scott can get that message to people and make the point that he’ll vote against it and Martha will vote for it, that he’s going to be the deciding vote on whether it passes or not, I think it’s a very strong message for Scott,” said veteran Massachusetts Republican consultant Charley Manning. “Everybody understands that the health care bill that was passed here has cost much more than anyone every anticipated and that it’s causing huge problems in our state budget, which has a massive deficit.”
Brown’s health care message has already been the subject of a fundraising appeal from Romney, and his campaign is attracting the notice of the conservative blogosphere, where prominent voices have demanded more national party support for Brown’s candidacy while also pushing online donations to his campaign.
But Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh says that Brown’s focus on health care is a flawed strategy because voters have already been through the health care wars in Massachusetts, and that now they’re more interested in jobs and economic issues.
“Massachusetts voters aren’t going to send a Republican to take Ted Kennedy’s seat to vote against the one thing Ted Kennedy worked for his whole life,” said Marsh.
It will take money to spread Brown's message and the attorney general still has a fundraising advantage over the state senator, who just launched his first television ad last week. Some state Republicans contend that the national party is failing to provide sufficient resources to Brown — even as he’s pushing an issue that is likely to be a key GOP talking point in the 2010 midterms.
“Even though Scott Brown is the underdog, there’s no doubt about that, this would be a way to say, ‘Yes, even the people of Massachusetts are so upset with the shenanigans the Democrats have pulled over the health care bill that they can allow them to elect Scott Brown,’” former state GOP Chairman Peter Torkildsen said.
Torkildsen, a former member of Congress, questioned how serious the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee were taking the race.
“He needs help to get that message out. I hope they get out there quickly and don’t wait to the last minute,” he said.
An NRSC spokesperson said in a statement they don’t discuss funding or strategic help given to candidates, but sought to underscore Brown’s 41st vote message.
“As it appears increasingly likely the Democrats’ health care legislation will be unfinished by the time of January’s special election, however, we are confident that Scott Brown's message of restoring checks and balances to Washington as the 41st Republican senator matches up nicely against Martha Coakley's plan to rubber-stamp the current bill,” said NRSC spokesman Colin Reed.
Brown chose not to complain about the national party’s role in the contest. “On the one hand, I’m happy with everything we’ve been given,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t want to be beholden to anybody. I’ve always been an independent person and thinker and voter.”
The national party has reason to be tightfisted: Even with attention turned to health care, Brown faces significant challenges in getting out the vote in a strongly Democratic state. Special elections historically have low turnout, and the Jan. 19 election falls just after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend and takes place in a winter month of unpredictable weather.
David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, questioned whether the numbers can add up in Brown’s favor given a volatile electorate and short campaign cycle.
“My sense is that you’re not going to have a big influx of independents,” said Paleologos, who noted that independents make up 51 percent of registered voters in the state, with Democrats accounting for 37 percent and 12 percent identifying as Republicans.
A Suffolk University poll conducted in November showed Brown facing a 31 percentage point deficit to Coakley, but a Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday showed Brown down only nine points, with Coakley at 50 percent to his 41 percent.
The same Rasmussen poll also showed the state somewhat divided on the question of the health care bill, with 53 percent favoring the Democratic plan before Congress, while 45 percent oppose it.
Paleologos said that while the health care issue could boost Brown, other issues such as jobs and the economy will continue to resonate with voters.
“It will have a measured impact, but I don’t know if it will be enough to flip the state from Democratic senator to Republican senator,” he said.
The presence of a third party candidate, Joe Kennedy, is more sand in Brown’s gears. A libertarian running as an independent, Kennedy is an information technology specialist who’s never run for public office before. Like Brown, he opposes the national health care bill, but he sides with Coakley on some issues, such as opposing a troop surge in Afghanistan.
Although Kennedy benefits from a serendipitous surname, he has made clear that he is of no relation to the late senator’s family. Nevertheless he might pull some votes away from Brown, though opinion is mixed on which candidate he hurts more. Kennedy was not tested in the recent Rasmussen survey.
“In some respects, he’s more conservative than Scott, and in some respects, he’s more liberal than Martha. In the end, I think it hurts Scott more than Martha,” said Marsh. “There are libertarians in Massachusetts, and he’ll get some votes, not a ton. But I don’t think, in the end, that’s going to be the difference between who wins and loses this race.”
Republicans agree that he likely won’t affect the final outcome, though some believe his candidacy might hurt Coakley.
“I think he’s going to siphon off votes from Martha because his name is Joe Kennedy. He’s not going to be pulling Republican votes with a name like Kennedy,” said Massachusetts GOP Chair Jennifer Nassour. “Instead of electing the 60th boring Democrat, you can elect the firecracker 41st senator. That 41st Senate vote is very appealing to people.”
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