I can’t claim to know who will win the special election for the US Senate seat from Massachusetts formerly held by Ted Kennedy. However, I do know one thing: It is yet another item in the “charge sheet” against the American way of politics and policy-making that a government that, along with its legislative majorities, was endorsed by substantial majorities of the electorate could have its entire agenda pivot on the outcome of a special election for one seat in one house in one state just one year into its tenure.
It is worth noting that the current government is the first government in the USA to have popular majorities backing both it and its legislative majorities in quite some time (since 1976, I believe; no Republican Senate majority in at least five decades has been backed by a popular majority and Clinton never won over 50% of the vote). But that does not matter. One might think that elections should matter–that is, national elections–and that governments endorsed by majorities might be generally able to implement their programs. Well, at least that is what one might think if one were a committed small-d democrat.
That the Democratic Party is in such a fight for this seat–in Massachusetts!–is also a new item for the charge sheet against the party. How can it have missed the boat so badly with its policy agenda that it is struggling to hold a Senate seat in a state so reliably Democratic, till now, in Senate elections?
One item from the Globe and Mail suggests one reason why Republican Scott Brown is putting up such a challenge: He says that health care is a state issue. That is a defensible position–personally, I think it’s wrong, but it is defensible. The interesting twist is that various elements of the Democratic proposals resemble the healthcare policy put in place already in Massachusetts. That healthcare program was signed by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney, and that fact won’t help him with the national Republican primary electorate in 2012). So, in a sense, at least some swing voters in Massachusetts may be voting to protect what they already have from feared federal intrusion by a national policy. Ironically, that is how the Senate is supposed to work: as a forum for protecting state interests. Here we have a state that is seriously under-represented in terms of population per Senator, given that severe malapportionment of the institution. But in this one election, it will be seriously over-represented, as a relative few swing voters in one state essentially decide the fate of the governing party program, by bringing its majority below 60% in one house.
On the contest itself, Republicans chose for themselves about as good a candidate as they could have: Brown is very liberal for a Republican–even in the context of Massachusetts, where Republicans are in general about as liberal as they can be and still be Republicans. (Both points are made by Boris Shor, in a graph posted by Andrew Gelman at 538.)
On the other hand, evidently Democrat Martha Coakley is no exactly an exciting candidate, or one in touch with her voters–she evidently does not even know that Curt Schiling is something of a Massachusetts legend, suggesting he was a Yankees fan. If Coakley loses, there will be debate about how much candidate effects mattered and how much it really was a referendum on Obama’s policies, especially healthcare. But there is little doubting the impact. And, whatever one’s opinion of the policies or the current government, that just shows what an odd way we run this system known as American democracy.