Photo finish for senate race

By Alana Goodman

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Want to know how Attorney General Martha Coakley screwed up her lead in the Massachusetts Senate race? Look no further than the contrasting rallies she and her opponent State Sen. Scott Brown held in Boston on Friday.

At the Brown rally, the Republican nominee fired up a crowd of cheering supporters who braved the chilly weather to watch him stump at Paul Revere Park in the city’s North End. Coakley’s rally, by contrast, was held in the lavish ballroom of the famed Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel – the “grand dame of Boston,” which has played host to royalty, celebrities and virtually every U.S. president since the early 1900s.

The two events are a fitting metaphor for a race that has turned into a populist, “We-the-People” denunciation of entitlement politics in Massachusetts. Brown, who was essentially a no-name politician in the state up until a few months ago, successfully painted himself as a blue-jeans-wearing, pickup-truck-driving, average-Joe fighting against an out-of-touch establishment Democrat. It worked. In just over a month, Brown has made up his nearly 20-point lag in the polls and now appears to be neck-and-neck with his rival.

Coakley’s team has bungled her campaign from the beginning, but their tactics are growing more convoluted by the day. As the Democrats desperately watch their lead in the state Senate race slip away, their revamped political strategy over the past few weeks can only be described as mind-bogglingly clueless.

First came the spectacular display of entitlement politics, complete with indignant outcries that a Republican could become a successor to “Ted Kennedy’s seat.” Even after Brown’s campaign pointed out the underlying pretention of this talking point – “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy’s seat … it’s the people’s seat” – Brown corrected the moderator during his crowning moment of the Senate debate – the Democrats still didn’t seem to grasp that the “Kennedy seat” meme was killing Coakley with the public.

“We can’t let [Brown] get anywhere near Kennedy’s desk,” warned a letter to supporters from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Jan. 15. “Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat could fall into the hands of Scott Brown,” cautioned a Jan. 12 e-mail blast sent out by the Democratic National Committee arm, Organizing for America.

In reality, the only thing in Scott Brown’s hands was the Coakley campaign –which was playing right into them. While invoking Ted Kennedy may have helped Coakley when it came to energizing those who already supported her, it also succeeded at turning off independent voters with its arrogance and cynical politicization of Kennedy’s recent death.

On Friday, Democrats finally appeared to get the message that this strategy wasn’t working, when they released a video of Vicki Kennedy, the late Sen. Kennedy’s wife, urging voters to elect Coakley not for “Ted Kennedy’s seat” but for “the people’s seat.” But by that time, the damage had already been done and the message came off as politically expedient and insincere. Not to mention desperate.

However, Coakley’s most cringe-worthy stumble came in the middle of last week, when her distaste for “pedestrian” politics was made comically clear in the Boston Globe. In response to a comment that she hasn’t spent much time campaigning among the people, Coakley shot back without a touch of irony – “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory remarked that this Marie Antoinette attitude may end up costing the attorney general the election. “Literally, [Coakley] all but vanished [since December]. She refused to debate on TV unless it was exactly on her terms. She went days without venturing out in public,” he noted in a Jan. 15 column.

And while Coakley is clearly unwilling to get her hands dirty when it comes to hob-knobbing with the rank and file, that hasn’t stopped her campaign from desperately chucking mud at her opponent. Democrats have gone negative over the past few weeks, scrambling to portray Brown as a “radical right-winger” with ties to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, former President George W. Bush and the “Tea Party Movement.”

“[Coakley’s] opponent is a far-right tea-bagger,” wrote New York Sen. Chuck Schumer in a letter to supporters. A commercial paid for by the Service Employees International Union alleged that “Brown’s campaign is being supported by the same extremist group that backs Sarah Palin.”

But if the muck is sticking to Brown, his numbers certainly haven’t reflected it. A bombshell Suffolk poll released Thursday shows the state senator with a four point lead over Coakley. Further, the poll also shows that it may be Coakley whose views are too extreme for the average voter – 51 percent of the Massachusetts electorate opposes the national health care reform championed by the state attorney general.

If this close election has shown us anything, it’s that voters are sick of politicians behaving with all the entitlement of impetuous royalty. They are annoyed that an aspiring Senator thinks she can swagger into a cushy reserved seat without smudging her manicure on the hands of the unwashed masses.

Despite her difficulties over the past few weeks, Coakley still may still pull off a win today. But even if she does, at least the Massachusetts voters have made her – and other overconfident politicians up for election in 2010 – sweat a little.

Alana Goodman is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]