"This is, in effect, a referendum on health care," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the Massachusetts Senate race, during an appearance this past weekend on Fox News Sunday.
That's certainly something Republicans--and Republicans in DC, especially--want this to be: an act of voters, on top of all the polling that showing opposition to Congress's health care legislation, that proves Americans really don't want what the president and his fellow partisans are pushing, what he has staked the first leg of his presidency on, and what was the top issue Americans voted on in the 2008 election: health care reform.
If Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate race, the GOP talking points will flow: even voters in Massachusetts--Massachusetts, for crying out loud--don't want ObamaCare...and they've already had RomneyCare, the closes thing to it any Republican has proposed. Even in a northeastern liberal stronghold, the president's ideological, socialistic expansion of government was shown to be out of touch with what Americans want. It was a referendum, and the president lost.
Well, is it a referendum?
Health care has certainly played a role in this race. Because of health care--and the Democratic agenda in general--Scott Brown has received an influx of money and support from Republicans across the country; anti-health-care sentiment has certainly rallied Republicans around this race, and will probably turn out pro-Brown votes on Tuesday.
To the voters of Massachusetts, though, health care isn't the primary issue their new senator will conront: in the Suffolk/7 News poll released last week, "Economy/Jobs" ranked as the top issue for the next senator from Massachusetts, with 44 percent of respondents prioritizing it first; health care came in second at 38 percent. An Inside Medord/Merriman River Group poll conducted Jan. 15 also showed health care coming in second, though only by one percentage point (losing to "taxes, jobs, economy" 42 percent to 41 percent).
The Suffolk poll showed that most respondents don't support "the proposed national near universal health care law": 51 percent of respondents opposed it, while 36 percent said they support it and 13 percent said they were undecided.
So Coakley is actually polling ahead of health care, with recent surveys showing the race anywhere from dead even to Brown +7.
But that's half the story; the other is the specific appeal of the candidates themselves. And in that regard, it's worth mentioning some of Coakley's well-documented gaffes down the stretch. The effect of "gaffes" on campaigns is largely immeasurable. They're charged with insinuations of gravity by opposing message machines, but who knows how much they actually matter.
That said, in the past week Coakley has suggested, on live radio, that Curt Schilling is a Yankees fan; mocked the idea of shaking hands with voters outside Fenway Park, in response to a question over whether she's being too passive; appeared at a fundraiser in DC reportedly hosted by health care industry lobbyists (who were among 22 names listed on the host committee), outside of which a campaign consultant knocked down a reporter trying to follow her down the sidewalk to ask some confrontational questions; and said, during the final debate, that al Qaeda terrorists are gone from Afghanistan (a point that, rhetorically, has some merit--it's widely accepted that al Qaeda's main operators have moved from Afghanistan into Pakistan--but one for which she's taken criticism nonetheless).
If Coakley loses, she will go down in ignominy among Democrats as the candidate who couldn't hold onto their 60-seat majority--who, albeit in the face of significant GOP resources, lost in a Democratic state, against a Republican state legislator whom only about half of poll respondents (from Suffolk) had heard of in November.
Coakley looked like a good candidate for Democrats. She was popular (57/21 favorable/unfavorable split in November), and, as attorney general, was a statewide officeholder who had defeated another legitimate political player, Rep. Michael Capuano, in the primary. In other words, she was no lightweight, and people liked her.
Her numbers have gone south, but that probably has nothing to do with health care. So far, the national Republican message machine has focused mainly on those gaffes.
And this is not to say Coakley was the only candidate to gaffe--see here.
Republicans are more enthusiastic about this race, most likely because it's their chance to stop the Democratic agenda--and the campaign has had more than its share of mini-dramas over the past couple weeks--but there is more at play here than health care, to be certain. The candidates themselves and the economy, for instance, surely have something to do with it.