Obama's agenda at risk in Senate election

If the Democrats' candidate is defeated in today's Massachusetts election, it could jeopardise the president's initiatives.

WASHINGTON // Voters in Massachusetts today will choose a senator to replace Ted Kennedy, who died in August, in a special election that could have a significant impact on the success of Barack Obama's 2010 agenda and broad implications for his Democratic Party.

Polls show a surprisingly close race in one of America's most liberal states, where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one. Analysts have declared it a toss-up between Scott Brown, a little-known Republican state senator, and Martha Coakley, the Democratic state attorney general who was once thought to be a shoo-in to win the seat. A defeat for Ms Coakley would cut into the Democrats' fragile 60-vote majority needed to defeat a Republican filibuster in the Senate, jeopardising the passage of Mr Obama's signature domestic initiative, healthcare reform, and also imperilling his other ambitions, from enacting climate change legislation to instituting new federal financial regulations.

The prospect of losing the seat, held by Kennedy since 1962, has been a growing source of concern for Democrats, a fact underscored on Sunday when Mr Obama visited Massachusetts to stump for Ms Coakley. In a speech to her supporters in Boston, Mr Obama warned that the balance of his agenda could depend on the election's outcome. "We know that on many of the major questions of our day, a lot of these votes are going to - a lot of these measures are going to rest on one vote in the United States Senate," Mr Obama said. "So understand what's at stake here, Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forward, or going backwards."

To many analysts, the special election amounts to an early referendum on Mr Obama's presidency as he approaches the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. Voters have grown increasingly jaded by the protracted partisan battle over health care reform, a skyrocketing federal deficit and double-digit unemployment and many believe they will take such frustration to the ballot box. Republicans swept the two other nationally important elections that have taken place with Mr Obama in office, winning November's gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. A loss in Massachusetts could be yet another sign that Democrats are headed for heavy losses in this year's November midterm elections, when a vast majority of governors, one-third of the Senate, and all 435 seats in the House will be up for election.

In his speech for Ms Coakley on Sunday, Mr Obama stuck to a largely populist message, linking Mr Scott - and, more broadly, Republicans - to corporate banks and Wall Street "fat cats" who have fuelled public anger by receiving huge payouts even as the economy struggles to rebound. "She's got your back," he said of Ms Coakley. "Her opponent has got Wall Street's back." The president also used the platform to highlight his accomplishments and defend his administration's policies.

"It hasn't been easy. But we've begun to deliver on the change you voted for," he said. "We've started to see the economy grow again. We've given tax cuts to small businesses. We're forcing the banks finally to start lending again on Main Street." Mr Obama rarely mentioned the pending healthcare legislation, which 61 per cent of Massachusetts voters believe is unaffordable, according to a recent poll conducted by Boston's Suffolk University. The opposition to healthcare reform in Massachusetts, and the boost it is providing Republicans, is particularly ironic because of Kennedy's decades of work in the Senate to enact such legislation.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said on Fox News Sunday that the Massachusetts vote would be a "referendum on the national health care bill". "Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, we know that in the most liberal state in America, you're going to have a close election to the United States Senate because the people of Massachusetts don't want this healthcare bill passed," Mr McConnell said.

If Ms Coakley loses, Democrats may seek to pass the health care legislation by other means, including a rarely used procedural tactic called "reconciliation" that requires only a simple majority for final passage. Another option would be for the House to pass the Senate version of the legislation without negotiations, though that might be unrealistic given opposition in the House to provisions in the Senate bill.

Asked several times on Sunday by reporters what course of action Democrats might pursue if Ms Coakley loses, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, declined to provide a contingency plan. "We think Martha Coakley is going to win this race," he said. sstanek@thenational.ae