Brand in Crisis: Will Hub Voters Bid Obama Agenda Adieu?

By Rick Klein

It was going to happen sometime, and somewhere. But in Massachusetts, for Ted Kennedy’s seat?

Now that the tea partying has spread to Boston, voters get to render judgment on an incomplete presidency -- with judgments looking fairly final.

Forget the plummeting fortunes of Democrat Martha Coakley, or the pickup-truck rumblings stirred by Republican Scott Brown: We have a presidency cast in stark relief Tuesday in Massachusetts, and an agenda in the balance.

The cross-currents of this first year of the Obama presidency -- the energy on the right, the frustrations of the left, the continued desire for change in just about any form -- mix in an unusually clear and distinct way in the special election.

This one has the symbolism -- Ted Kennedy’s seat, in bluest of blue states -- and the substance -- a populist Republican, seeking to become No. 41 in the GOP caucus, with no margin for error on the president’s No. 1 priority.

Win or lose for the Democrats (and the drumbeat to declare a winner, it should be noted, feels very much like when New Hampshire was poised to deliver candidate Barack Obama the presidential nomination) the race reveals the absence of a political base for national Democrats, or at least the absence of a motivation among that base.

A year after that frigid day on the Washington Mall, a cold season is enveloping the White House brand.

Before we get to the aftermath, the voting: Polls in the Bay State opened at 7 am ET and close at 8 pm ET, and there’s no exit polling. In Greater Boston, it’s cloudy and chilly, though not frigid, with a chance of snow. It’s a bit colder and messier in the middle of the state, which leans a bit more Republican.

Among the lessons of the day: Does online enthusiasm and national attention and huge stakes mean turnout for a Republican? And is there anything -- anything at all -- that can save the Democratic turnout machine in the face of these kinds of headwinds?

Expanding the stakes (and what seats will be shielded from this dynamic this year?):

“Massachusetts came to exemplify the nation’s political divide in recent weeks, as Brown caught fire with voters -- including many independents -- who are either disenchanted with Democratic leadership nationally or not sold on the Democratic nominee,” Stephanie Ebbert, Donovan Slack, and Jeannie Nuss report for The Boston Globe.

“The president campaigned in New Jersey and Virginia for candidates -- and lost. He campaigned for the Olympics in Copenhagen -- and lost,” ABC’s John Berman reported on “Good Morning America” Tuesday, from outside Coakley’s polling place in Medford, Mass. “And now, he’s campaigned here.”

“Democrats are braced for a pretty big defeat,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “GMA.” “White House and congressional Democrats are hoping for a miracle. But they’re expecting, right now, the Democrat, Martha Coakley, to lose.”

Historic, in its own way: “If Brown wins, and he may, it will be the biggest political upset of my adult life,” Stu Rothenberg writes in his Roll Call column. “Savvy veteran Republican political observers are as stunned as I am about what has happened -- and what may happen -- in the Bay State.”

Just one seat, except when it’s way more than that: “This isn't what Democrats had in mind. The race to fill the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts neared its conclusion with not only its outcome but also the fate of President Obama's agenda in question,” the AP’s Steve LeBlanc reports.

“Democrats face the possibility of losing their most iconic U.S. Senate seat,” Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla writes.

“Their agenda is about blocking Ted Kennedy's dream,” Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., tells The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Hitt.

Why the indies are all that matter -- in a state that sent Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney to the Corner Office in successive elections: “Polls show that independent voters flocking to Republican Scott Brown have erased the wide lead enjoyed earlier in the campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley. The shift is similar to those that took place before GOP wins in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey races for governor,” USA Today’s John Fritze reports.

Does overreading lead to overreaching? “The Democratic party's problems, crystallized in the last-ditch scramble to save Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election Tuesday, can be traced to a simple mistake: Many in the party misread voters' desire to switch parties in recent years as an ideological shift to the left,” Gerald Seib writes in his “Capital Journal” column.

Who commands an army? Eugene Robinson, in his Washington Post column: “Vocal opponents of the president and the Democratic congressional leadership are eager, motivated and so excited that they can't wait to grab their ‘tea party" signs and march around the neighborhood.’ Vocal supporters of the president are . . . well, at the moment they aren't even particularly vocal.”

Still confident: “This race has really stirred the passions of people across the country,” Donna Brazile said on “GMA.” “This is a race that matters to Democrats across this country... We can win this race today.”

“They’re not just losing independents -- they’re losing soft Democrats,” Mary Matalin countered.

Some early numbers out of Massachusetts -- offering some encouragement for Camp Coakley, per a Democratic official: In Boston and Quincy, absentee ballots have run 4 ½ times more Democratic than Republican. And 18-24 year-olds have cast more absentee ballots per capita than 35-49 year olds, the official tells The Note.

The Boston Globe’s what to watch for: “The independent vote... The Democratic base... National impact... Obama’s visit... Kennedy voters [as in, the libertarian candidate Joseph Kennedy]... The money factor.”

Gallup runs the relevant numbers: “The percent identifying themselves as Democratic [in Massachusetts] matches the national average, while the percent independent is well above the national norm. Many Massachusetts independents, however, lean toward the Democratic Party.”

If you’re wondering what’s next: “This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt,” a senior administration official tells Politico’s Mike Allen, on what happens if Coakley loses. “It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard.”

The official adds: “The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, ‘At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.’ ”

Time to double down -- or get up from the table? “Some believe they can still pass health care even if their candidate, Martha Coakley, loses the Senate race in Massachusetts on Tuesday,” David Brooks writes in his New York Times column. “That, of course, would be political suicide. It would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern. Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage.”

It’s not about health care, after all? “Massachusetts is completely unique, because the health reform law passed a few years ago,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tells The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza.

Blame game: “Other Democrats argued that Coakley, rather than health-care reform or Obama, bears principal responsibility for allowing the race to become so close, noting that in many of their private polls in the state, both the president and his initiative are more popular than the attorney general,” Balz and Cillizza write.

Plenty to go around: “Many angry Democrats blame their candidate,” Politico’s Manu Raju, Jonathan Martin, and John Bresnahan write. “Some Democratic strategists lay the fault at the feet of President Barack Obama, saying he should have done more to sell the party’s agenda. And in private conversations, Hill sources say White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has blamed Coakley, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake for failing to see Brown’s surge in time to stop it.”

Health care is most definitely in the balance Tuesday. A Democratic loss means a vastly diminished array of options, all of them messy.

David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear, in The New York Times: “The White House and Democratic Congressional leaders, scrambling for a backup plan to rescue their health care legislation if Republicans win the special election in Massachusetts on Tuesday, have begun laying the groundwork to ask House Democrats to approve the Senate version of the bill and send it directly to President Obama for his signature.”

(There is no other scenario, realistically, where health care can get signed before State of the Union, now finally scheduled for Jan. 27.)

But: “House members will not vote for the Senate bill. There’s no interest in that,” Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., tells the Times.

Another (less attractive) option: “Sources close to the Democratic leadership in both chambers say a speedy vote [before Brown would be seated] is the best option,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton writes.

“But even advocates of such an approach acknowledge privately that it could seriously tarnish the health bill and create an even greater political liability for Democrats heading toward congressional elections,” Noam Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Not worried -- not even now: “Let's remove all doubt, we will have health care -- one way or another,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in San Francisco Monday, per ABC’s Jonathan Karl. “Certainly the dynamic would change depending on what happens in Massachusetts. ... [It’s] just a question about how we would proceed. But it doesn't mean we won't have a health care bill.”

Desperate to move on: “What Democrats in Congress need right now is a self-esteem boost,” a Democratic source said. “That will come by finishing up work on a health care bill and moving to a political gimme like the jobs bill.”

Speaking of health care -- any tricks up any more sleeves? “Six months of heated debate and messy legislative sausage-making have shifted almost no one's mind on health care reform: Bottom-line public attitudes today, tilting negative but not broadly so, are essentially the same as they've been since August,” ABC News Polling Director Gary Langer writes, of the new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

“Fifty-one percent of Americans oppose the proposed changes to the health care system being developed by the Obama administration and Congress. Forty-four percent are in favor, with the rest undecided. That's identical to what it was a month ago.”

More broadly: “The latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll puts his standing at 50%-45%, lower than any post-World War II president starting his second year in office except Ronald Reagan, who was at 49%,” USA Today’s Susan Page writes.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, sensing the end zone: “Whether or not Republican Scott Brown wins today in Massachusetts, the special Senate election has already shaken up American politics. The close race to replace Ted Kennedy, liberalism's patron saint, shows that voters are rebelling even in the bluest of states against the last year's unbridled pursuit of partisan liberal governance.”

Also taking credit: “Working quietly and under the radar, the National Republican Senatorial Committee shifted $500,000 to the Massachusetts GOP in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s dramatic election,” Politico’s John Bresnahan writes. “NRSC officials kept quiet about the money transfers, despite public taunts from their Senate Democratic counterparts that the GOP leadership was declining to put money behind Brown’s candidacy.”

As for funny business with delays of certification -- Secretary of State Bill Galvin has no desire to become Katherine Harris: “I’m going to do everything I can to give the winner, whoever that winner is, the credentials they need as soon as possible,” Galvin told WCVB-TV, Boston’s ABC affiliate. “My reputation precedes me. I’m certainly not going to sacrifice my reputation for any race of any kind.”

Contingency planning -- and maybe wanting this fight: “I’d love for the Democrats to try to not seat him, and I’d like to see them rush through health care,” GOP National Committeeman Ron Kaufman told us from Boston on ABC’s “Top Line” Monday. “If either of those things happens, we’ll have a revolution in the streets -- not just here but in Washington. I think they’re smarter than that.”

Also on your Tuesday agenda: President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan meet with 6th grade students, and the president makes 10:25 am ET remarks.

“President Obama will announce plans today to continue and expand the ‘Race To The Top’ stimulus grant competition for education reform, requesting $1.35 billion in his FY-2011 budget to fund the program,” ABC’s Mary Bruce reports.

The Kicker:

“He wouldn’t have a win without me.” -- Independent candidate Joseph Kennedy, to the Boston Herald, jumping on the credit bandwagon.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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