Could Scott Brown's Victory in Mass. Kill Health Care Reform?

The Massachusetts special election to replace Ted Kennedy's seat next Tuesday was supposed to be cinch for Democrats. But a new poll shows Republican challenger Scott Brown leading Democrat Martha Coakley 50-46 percent. The coming Democratic freakout might not have to wait until November. It could be here. This upset would have significant repercussions -- not only for health care reform, but for the Democrats' economic agenda.

Brown's victory would give Republicans 41 seats in the Senate, enough to break the Democrats' filibuster-proof margin by a single vote. In other words, Tuesday's impact would extend beyond health care. It would hurt the Democrats chances to pass a jobs bill, which is already suffering in the Senate; a financial regulation bill which already receive zero Republican support; a cap and trade with dwindling prospects even though there are some Republicans like Lindsay Graham who have expressed interest in working with Democrats on climate change legislation; and immigration reform. Republicans have demonstrated remarkable party discipline (or shameful partisan cynicism) in opposing every step of Obama's legislation. A 41-seat minority puts a guillotine over the head of Obama's 2010 agenda.

That said, health care reform might be safe -- for a while. The interim senator Paul Kirk is a Democrat who has promised to vote for health care if he isn't displaced first. Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin has signaled that a final winner from Tuesday's vote could take more than a week to determine, because a federal vote allows for 10 extra days for military and absentee ballots to come in. Another source told the Boston Herald that the vote might not be certified until February 20. If that's true, it gives the Democrats a lot of time to hammer out the final details.

But here's the X-factor. If Coakley loses, recriminations follow. Pundits would break down the defeat along various lines: 1) She was a horrible candidate. 2) Democrats didn't show up at the polls because they assumed victory. 3) Health care reform's growing unpopularity and the Democrats' perceived dithering and weakness contributed to Coakley's erosion. 4) "The Tea Parties Win! In the very state where colonists first rose up against the tyranny of the Old World, the American People took a stand against the Leftist Agenda and dumped the tea of tyrannical over-reach into the Bay of Oblivion..." The first two will be liberal explanations. The third will be the centrist read. And that last one is made ready-to-order for Glenn Beck and his ilk.

Brown's victory would represent both a tactical blow to the filibuster-proof majority and a mojo killer, which could make liberal Democrats start to wonder whether they could be Coakleyed in November. That would tie huge anchors to the Democrats already plodding economic agenda. Stay tuned. Tuesday is huge.

Update: Passing along this RealClearPolitics list of polls. Coakley led by 30 points in September. The two latest polls have her up by 8 points and down by 4.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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