A lot on the line in the Bay State

A LOT ON THE LINE IN THE BAY STATE…. In just nine days, voters in Massachusetts will choose a U.S. senator to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. Given the state’s history, partisan leanings, and assumed desire to protect the integrity of the Kennedy legacy, it was generally assumed that the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, would win the Jan. 19 special election without too much difficulty.

The political story of the day, however, seems to be the competitive nature of the race, and the growing fears in Democratic circles that the likely victory may yet become a defeat that devastates the party and the country.

As you may have heard, it’s proven difficult enough to govern, even with a 60-vote majority in the Senate. With Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman effectively having veto power over every nominee and bill, getting anything done is needlessly challenging. But if state Sen. Scott Brown (R) manages to pull off an upset a week from Tuesday, the majority caucus will shrink back to 59 votes, and Republican obstructionism will bring the legislative process to a screeching halt.

The question, then, is whether the popular state AG can win the race that was thought to be over weeks ago. There’s some evidence that Democratic panic is well justified…

The new survey of Massachusetts by Public Policy Polling (D) sends a very alarming message to Democrats: Due to a fall in interest by Democratic voters, the race for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a toss-up, and Republican Scott Brown even has a one-point edge over Democrat Martha Coakley.

The numbers: Brown 48%, Coakley 47%, with a ±3.6% margin of error. The election will be held on January 19. Independent candidate Joe Kennedy, a libertarian who is not related to the famous Kennedy family, was not included in the poll. If Brown were to pick up this seat in Democratic Massachusetts, it would surely spell the end of the health care bill — Brown has made it very clear that he would use his power as the 41st Republican Senator to stop the bill.

The pollster’s analysis notes that Republicans are far more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats are.

…and some evidence that Republican glee is misplaced.

Democrat Martha Coakley, buoyed by her durable statewide popularity, enjoys a solid, 15-percentage-point lead over Republican rival Scott Brown as the race for US Senate enters the homestretch, according to a new Boston Globe poll of likely voters.

Half of voters surveyed said they would pick Coakley, the attorney general, if the election were held today, compared with 35 percent who would pick Brown. Nine percent were undecided, and a third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, received 5 percent.

Coakley’s lead grows to 17 points — 53 percent to 36 percent — when undecideds leaning toward a candidate are included in the tally. The results indicate that Brown has a steep hill to climb to pull off an upset in the Jan. 19 election.

That’s obviously a pretty big gap — either Brown is well positioned, or Coakley is. It depends on which poll you’re more likely to believe. (For what it’s worth, the Globe‘s reputation is stronger than PPP’s, especially when it comes to polling Massachusetts, but that’s hardly a guarantee.)

For Democrats, the panic may actually be a healthy development — Coakley and the party can stop taking the race for granted and start getting to work with nine days to go. Brown has gone largely untouched since the primaries — Dems didn’t see the need to go negative on a candidate they expected to defeat — but expect to hear a lot this week about Brown’s support for torture, disbelief in climate science, and opposition to health care reform and combating global warming.

If Dems are feeling unmotivated about the race, they may change their minds when told that Ted Kennedy’s seat will end up in the hands of a conservative Republican unless they get to work.