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GOP Activists Dream of a Massachusetts Upset


State Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in a Dec. 29 campaign ad (YouTube)

Days after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling–an icon ever since his performance helped the team win the 2004 World Series–let the word get out that he was considering a run for the seat. Two weeks later, he decided to take a pass. A potentially sensational campaign became a surefire win for the Democrats. When state Attorney General Martha Coakley won the Democratic Party’s nomination, one newspaper reported, matter-of-factly, that she was “poised to replace Kennedy” in the January 19 general election.

On Monday, Schilling returned to the fray. He gave his stamp of approval to the less-famous Republican who ended up running for Kennedy’s seat: Scott Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, Mass.

[GOP1]“If this state does the right thing, and elects Scott Brown, it will, in addition to being a comeback/upset of 2004 proportions, put a screeching halt to the Democratic [Party's] fast tracking this country into an abyss,” Schilling wrote on his blog. “This state can literally change the Nation in one day, think about that and then go vote for Scott Brown and make it happen.”

With those words, Schilling captured the enthusiasm of conservatives who worry that a health care reform bill is hurtling towards President Obama’s desk. Tentatively, with only 14 days to go until the election, a number of GOP strategists, Tea Party activists, and conservative bloggers are trying to do for Brown’s campaign what they did for the campaign of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in last year’s NY-23 special election–hopefully, with more success. Hoffman, a first-time candidate, was propelled past a centrist Republican and ended up narrowly losing a traditionally Republican seat to Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.).

“I’ve been emailing my contacts, saying that this is the start of the revolution,” said Barbara Anderson, the executive director of the Massachusetts anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Government. “If Brown wins, it will be a shot heard around the country.”

While interest in Hoffman’s campaign was nudged along by high-profile endorsements and polls showing the first-time, third-party candidate steadily rising, Brown’s campaign has gained traction by exploiting a gap in the news cycle. There has not been a poll on the race since a Western New England College survey released on October 26, 2009, which had Coakley leading Brown by 26 points. (On Monday, pollster Scott Rasmussen told TWI that his company would go into the field and conduct a poll on the race.) And over the last week of December, when little else was happening, Brown reported that he’d raised $600,000 and put out a TV ad comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, who held the seat before he was elected president–both of them, said Brown, wanted to cut taxes.

The lack of hard polling data and the Brown-driven impression that his campaign was surging were picked up online. Over the Christmas and New Years holidays, the little-known, Massachusetts-based blog Conservative Revival conducted its own “citizens poll,” which consisted of the blogger and her husband calling names in the phone book and asking who they supported. If no one picked up the phone, they left messages informing voters that Brown “vote against the government’s takeover of our health care” and “bring balance back to our Senate.” Their amateur poll showed Brown in the lead. HillBuzz, a blog written by die-hard supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton who oppose President Obama, encouraged readers to make phone calls for the candidate and “stop Healthcare Rationing, Cap & Tax, Amnesty for Illegals, and every other crazy thing Liberals in Washington want to do by putting [Brown] into deceased murderer and womanizer Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.” On December 30, Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini–who is doing some online work for Brown–published a lengthy argument for conservatives to take a “calculated risk” and donate to Brown.

That enthusiasm hasn’t wafted up to strategists in either party. Neither the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee has invested much in the race. While a spokesman for the NRSC pointed out that Brown’s race is one of the featured campaigns on the organization’s homepage, and that the organization has aided Brown’s campaign to the tune of $50,000, that’s less than one-tenth the commitment that the NRCC made to Jim Tedisco, the unsuccessful GOP candidate for a Democratic-held House seat in a New York special election last year.

“My guess is that nationalizing the election would help the other team,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “One reason that this is more doable is that the other team is not worried about losing. If RNC or the NRSC was running a billion dollars worth of ads, you’d put the Democrats on alert. I think the smart move is to concentrate on GOTV and talk radio.”

Norquist, a Massachusetts native, added that he’d seen more signs for Brown than Coakley when he was in the state last week. “But if signs could vote,” he said, “Ron Paul would be president.”

Mary Ann Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, offered a simpler reason for the national GOP’s approach to the race: It’s unwinnable.

“Massachusetts is not going to send a Republican to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat,” said Marsh. “There is a playbook for winning as a Republican in Massachusetts. Brown has ignored it.”

Marsh argued that Brown’s push to appeal to the national conservative base and gin up Tea Party enthusiasm–by promising, for example, that he “could be the 41st senator that could stop the Obama proposal that’s being pushed right now through Congress”–would backfire statewide. While Massachusetts was the site of multiple Tea Parties, and while those activists are swinging behind Brown, there’s no data suggesting that voters are in the mood to stop the Senate’s health care bill. A September 2009 poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Globe found voters supportive of the state’s health care reform–a mandate that conservatives compare to the plan moving through Capitol Hill–by a 37-point margin. While Brown supporters argue that Coakley has run a lackluster campaign that hasn’t excited Democrats, polling has consistently shown the attorney general to be the state’s most popular politician, with favorable numbers in the 50s or 60s. And she is being advised by Lynda Tocci, a turnout guru who managed Hillary Clinton’s election-day effort in the New Hampshire primary. All of that, said Marsh, contrasted well against Brown’s strategy of “winning the news cycle” and “spinning” conservative bloggers into thinking he had a shot.

“Brown could get elected in Mississippi, but not Massachusetts,” said Marsh.

With two weeks to go, conservative activists are still divided on whether to bet on Brown. While Moe Lane has used his perch at RedState.com to advocate support for Brown–Lane has encouraged Sarah Palin to nationalize the race with an endorsement, as she did for Doug Hoffman–the site’s editor, Erick Erickson, was more bearish. “I think the odds are still against Brown in a way that they were not necessarily against Hoffman,” said Erickson.

Norquist, who was hopeful that Brown would at least make a “stronger showing than expected,” argued that conservatives had a reason to help out Brown. “This is one of those lopsided things where if they win it’s nothing, and if we win it’s the cover of Time magazine.”

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