Could the Democrats Lose Kennedy's Senate Seat?

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From left: Elise Amendola / AP; Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP

Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, left, and Republican state senator Scott Brown

Momentum in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat seems to be swinging back to the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, after a public policy poll over the weekend showed Republican state senator Scott Brown pulling slightly ahead.

Since that poll left Democrats in the state and the nation's capital panicked about a possible upset, a Boston Globe poll found Coakley leading by 15 percentage points and one from the Mellman Group — albeit a Democratic-leaning organization — showed Coakley with a 14-point lead. But more important than the surveys themselves, the Massachusetts Democratic leadership seems to have been awakened by the closeness of the race — as, Coakley hopes, have been Democratic voters.

"It's mythology that we don't have competitive Senate races in Massachusetts," says John Kerry, Massachusetts' senior Senator. "Look back at those tapes of Bill Weld and I debating each other, or Ted Kennedy's epic race against Mitt Romney. This race is no different. It's a slog, and it's spirited, and Martha's coming out on top. But the frenzied press coverage should be a big fat warning to any Democrat who would let cold weather keep them away from the polls. It's Politics 101, you have to come out and vote."

How heavy turnout is remains to be seen. While Dems have a 3 to 1 advantage in party registration, Republicans remain more motivated, says Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire's polling center, which conducted the Globe survey. "Coakley also has a distinct advantage in name recognition," Smith says. "But a low turnout election will help Brown."

Democrats are doing their best to make sure that doesn't happen. They have closed ranks around Coakley in the last week, with Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, endorsing her; the Kennedys were miffed at first by Coakley's candidacy, announced less than a week after the Senator's burial. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dispatched Michael Meehan, a media consultant familiar with Massachusetts politics, to Boston to help the campaign, and former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to hold a rally with her later this week.

Just hours before their final debate, Coakley went on the offensive on Monday, saying Brown would move the country backward to "the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney Administration" if elected. On Tuesday she's expected to fly to Washington for a fundraiser — an unusual move so close to an election, and one that has fueled speculation that she's in real trouble. Adding to that image is a last-minute TV ad buy in Boston and Springfield by the Massachusetts Democratic Party; that push is likely financed by Washington Democrats with money sorely needed to defend vulnerable incumbents or finance challenges in the six seats where Senate Republicans are retiring.

At stake is far more than a simple Senate seat, even one held by Ted Kennedy. Brown has boasted that if he wins, he'll be the linchpin in a successful GOP filibuster of health care reform, and Coakley has stressed on the campaign that she would be the 60th vote to deliver one of Kennedy's top priorities. If Brown were to win, Democrats would have to drop everything and fly to Maine to find out what Republican moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe might want in exchange for their votes. Or, according to the Boston Herald, Massachusetts Democrats could drag their feet certifying Brown's victory to allow Congress to cram through health care.

But neither of these somewhat scary scenarios for Harry Reid are likely. "We view the race with Coakley comfortably ahead," says a Senate Democratic leadership aide. "In this climate, we take nothing for granted. A win is a win, and we need to make sure she pulls this off." In fact, Democrats are now a little less worried about keeping the seat — if anything, the public policy poll did them a good turn, helping to energize otherwise lethargic Dem voters.

The bigger scare is how hard fought the contest became. Even if Coakley wins comfortably now, this past week was a major warning shot for vulnerable members who will surely have taken note at the amount of investment and energy it took to retain the seat. This is Massachusetts, after all, where both Senators, the governor, all 10 congressional members and a large majority of the state legislature are Democrats. It doesn't get much bluer than the Pilgrim State. In other words, whatever happens, the big takeaway from the race will be: If Teddy's seat isn't safe, no one's is.