BOSTON (AP) — President Barack Obama embarked on a rescue mission Sunday in Massachusetts, hoping his political clout, though diminished, would save an endangered Democratic U.S. Senate candidate as well as the critical 60th vote needed for his health care plan and most of the rest of his agenda.
The unexpectedly tight race for the seat held so long by Edward M. Kennedy, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1, reflects a nasty anti-establishment environment that threatens Obama’s support in Congress now and heading into this fall’s elections.
Republican Scott Brown, a little-known state senator, has tapped into voter anger and anxiety over federal spending to pull even with Democrat Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general.
Brown says he would vote against Obama’s health care bill, robbing Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to prevent Republicans from blocking it.
U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky portrayed the Massachusetts contest as a national referendum on the health care bill. “If it’s unpopular in Massachusetts, it’s unpopular everywhere. The American people don’t want us to pass this bill,” McConnell said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Tuesday’s special election will be held a day shy of the one-year anniversary of Obama’s swearing-in. Turnout, notoriously low in special elections, will be critical.
Democrats and Republicans worked feverishly to get voters out. Coakley and Brown made their own personal appeals at events across the state.
No matter who wins, the shockingly close contest in the Democratic of states — coupled with defeats last fall in New Jersey and Virginia governor races — is likely to give a lasting scare in Democrats, raise questions about Obama’s prowess and test his party’s resolve about his agenda, particularly health care.
The presidential visit was extraordinary and showed how much was on the line for Obama and the Democratic-run Congress.
It was a sensitive time for Obama to leave Washington and campaign for a seat that his party has held for more than a half-century. Health care negotiations with Congress are at their most critical stage, and Obama has focused on helping Haiti recovery from Tuesday’s devastating earthquake.
Obama is seeking to fire up rank-and-file Democrats who are dispirited just one year after he took office. In a race this tight, Democrats need their loyalists — particularly blue-collar and minority voters who might not be motivated — to show up at the polls.
But the president’s popularity isn’t what it was when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009.
Polls now show Obama’s job approval hovering around 50 percent or below it, very different from where it was a year ago. In Massachusetts, a Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed that only 48 percent approve of Obama’s performance.
Obama’s ability to persuade voters to back Democrats if he’s not on the ballot is in question. In November, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Democrat Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee to replace Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, both lost even though Obama campaigned hard for them.
Before an afternoon rally at Northeastern University with Obama, Coakley appeared with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at a morning prayer service in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood for victims of the Haiti earthquake.
“A lot of people don’t want Barack Obama to succeed, and that’s who we’re fighting against. They don’t want him to be a president that leads this country. They want him to be a president who fails,” said Menino told a largely black congregation.
Brown tried to counter Obama’s international celebrity with his own local starpower, appearing in Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, with former Boston College football star Doug Flutie and Curt Schilling, who in 2004 pitched the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Democrats pressed to make the case that Brown is not who he claims to be. They cast him as a far-right conservative funded by “tea party” supporters and they highlighted a TV interview from 2008 in which Brown seems to suggests that Obama may have been born out of wedlock.
Sidoti reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Glen Johnson contributed to this report.