Voters paying attention to the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy can be forgiven if theyâ€™re feeling a little bit confused as the Jan. 19 special election draws closer.
The last week has featured a bevy of polls that show Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee, ahead by 15 points or in a dead statistical heat with state Sen. Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican. Independent candidate Joseph Kennedy, unrelated to the politically famous Kennedy clan, is also running.
â€œPolls are all over the map,â€ said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who is supporting Coakley.
The wide-ranging numbers underscore the volatility of a tightening race, which is following an unusual schedule: Voters will turn in their ballots the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after voting in Democratic and Republican primaries in December, a month after mayoral and City Council elections.
Secretary of State William Galvin, the chief elections officer for the state, told the State House News Service this week that â€œEverything I can see suggests sheâ€™s in a fight.â€
But many local political operatives remain confident that Coakley will win â€“ likely by double digits â€“ and keep a Democratic lock on the seat. The last Republican that Bay State voters sent to the Senate was Edward Brooke, who, like Coakley, was a state attorney general. He was elected twice, starting in 1967.
Much like Mayor Thomas Meninoâ€™s bid for a historic fifth term, the question for most observers comes down to how much Coakley will win by and how that will bode for races across the state later this year, as Gov. Deval Patrick and members of the House and the Senate are up for re-election in November.
Voters in Boston, where Democrats dominate the State House delegation, are expected to go for Coakley, who lived in Popeâ€™s Hill and unsuccessfully ran in a 1997 special election for a seat won by state Rep. Marty Walsh and still held by him. (Ironically, she might end up losing in the area where she once lived since it has leaned conservative in recent elections.)
Based on the numbers in the December 2009 primary, 61,824 Democrats and 5,172 Republicans cast ballots, according to Bostonâ€™s elections department.
Out of Bostonâ€™s 22 wards, Coakley won five of them, with the rest going to Congressman Michael Capuano. Two of the wards she won were in Dorchester: Wards 7 and 16. She also won wards in Roslindale and West Roxbury, South Boston, South End, the Fenway Area, and Beacon Hill.
Coakley and Brown faced off for the final time this week in a debate at UMass-Boston. Each sought to paint the other as a radical, with Coakley seeking to link Brown to the unpopular policies of the Bush administration and Brown hoping to tie Coakley to unpopular Beacon Hill figures such as Gov. Deval Patrick, who is fighting low poll numbers.
Brown pledged to vote against the health care reform proposal that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are working on, saying that the bill will cost jobs and that heâ€™d like to â€œsend them back to the drawing board.â€
But Coakley said the bill is â€œbudget-neutralâ€ and necessary to fix a broken health insurance system. â€œAs Sen. Kennedy said, [health care] should be a right, not a privilege,â€ she said.
And after the back-and-forth debate, moderated by CNN analyst David Gergen, the candidates immediately pounced on one anotherâ€™s statements: Coakley on Brown declining to directly answer a question on his sponsorship of an amendment that would have allowed hospital workers to deny rape victims contraception based on religious grounds; Brown on Coakley for saying Al Qaeda was out of Afghanistan despite President Barack Obama repeatedly stating that the terrorist group remains active.