BOSTON—President Obama flew in Sunday for a last-minute campaign stop for beleaguered senatorial candidate Martha Coakley. In his speech, besides the usual exhortations to the party faithful, he managed to work in several snide references to her opponent's truck as a symbol of false populism. Coakley's opponent, Republican Scott Brown, was flabbergasted. "Unbelievable," he said. "The leader of the free world is talking about my truck."
The last 24 hours before polls opened in Massachusetts had a similar, is-this-really-happening, holy-crap-it's-really-happening kind of feel. As Brown cruised around the state—not always in his truck, but certainly alongside it—he encountered crowds that were undeniably more energetic, emotional, and populous than those that greeted Coakley, the one-time Democratic front-runner. Yes, some were bused in. Others drove on their own from out of state. But most were Massachusetts conservatives who felt like their votes mattered for the first time. The signs people waved echoed those of the tea parties—"I'm Not Obama's ATM," "The Scott Heard Round the World." But this time, they were looking for more than airtime on Fox.
"I can't sleep," said Paul Tusini of Boxford, who showed up at a rally for Brown in North Andover, a suburb north of Boston. "It's all I can think about." "The world is watching, not just the country," said Stephen F. Jackman, a bearded man wearing a red plaid jacket and waving a huge "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Hundreds of people lined the town's Main Street Monday afternoon. Dozens more gathered that morning in front of TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, where Brown greeted Bruins fans as they passed. (The rallies were infectious even to people who don't follow politics. "Woo hoo! Go Brown!" cheered Chris Pires, a Brockton native who was selling Bruins hats. He later said he did not know Brown was a Republican.) Several hundred more showed up to his final pre-Election Day rally in his hometown of Wrentham.
These numbers could mean nothing. Or they could mean everything. For days, Massachusetts has been flying blind. Reliable polling is hard to come by, and the data we do have are ever-changing. (Although the smart money is on Brown.) Turnout is impossible to predict. And zeal is impossible to quantify. But the lack of information only heightens the excitement. It's like a basketball game in which the hoop is obscured and the score is hidden; you don't know until the end how many shots actually went in.
Which leaves the candidates no choice but to plug away. Brown is remarkably good at this, repeating his message like a mantra. He's Scott Brown. He drives a truck. It has 200,000 miles on it. (Actually, 201,084 at last glance.) He wants to change things in Washington. And he is shocked and disturbed, quite frankly, by the negative campaigning by Martha Coakley. Her suggestion that he supports denying emergency abortions to rape victims isn't just wrong, he says, it's borderline criminal. "There's negative campaigning," he told the Andover crowd. "Then there's being malicious. Then there's illegal." In a radio interview, he suggested he might consider legal action after the campaign was over. "All I have to say is, 'Shame on Martha!' " Brown said in Andover, prompting a chant.
Brown's supporters take their politics personally. In person, Coakley seems perfectly warm and down-to-earth. On the stump, she's slightly distant but still calm and reasonable. In the eyes of Brown supporters, she's hellspawn. "Vindictive," "cold," and "uninformed" were three of the kinder words Brown supporters had for her. Or, worse: "She has no star power," said Regina Schwarzenberg, who drove to Wrentham from Newport, R.I. "I've never seen a race like this, so malicious," said Michael Niederer, a student at Emerson College who supports Brown.
Aside from umbrage, Brown's second strongest weapon has been Coakley's gaffes, of which he makes sure supporters keep a running list. There's the time she thought Curt Schilling, the hero of the Red Sox's 2004 defeat of the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, was a Yankees fan. (Admittedly devastating.) Then there was that time she went to Washington to raise money from lobbyists. (Again, bad move.) Also, she doesn't think there are any terrorists left in Afghanistan. (OK, so she has a problem.)
But to be fair, the mudslinging on both sides has been fairly tame, by national standards. If the worst thing Coakley did was distort Brown's stance on abortion, he got off pretty easy. If Brown's worst sin was his failure to pay his staffers' health insurance, well, it could have been worse. If the worst gaffe either candidate made was a sports mix-up, not bad. Likewise, heads remained relatively cool: The closest thing to an act of violence I saw from either side was a burnt Coakley sign in Hyannis and a poster in Boston that read "If it's Brown, Flush it Down."
Still, exaggeration prevailed. Coakley isn't just the 60th vote on health care. She's a symbol of "tyranny." The Democrats don't just want to reform health care. They want government-run health care.
Brown, meanwhile, enjoys parallel deification. One sign referred to him as "Hottie McAwesome." "He crosses all ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries," said Suzanne Shroba, of North Attleboro. "I'm a physician, and my janitor is voting for Brown, too." "If he becomes senator, he's going to be president," a woman commented in Wrentham.
Other Bay State Republicans expect to benefit from his victory, too. Republican Marty Lamb, a Brown supporter who plans to run for the House this year against Rep. Jim McGovern, hopes to get a boost from Brown's momentum. Even out-of-state GOPers expect to ride the wave. "Right now, we're fourth and long," said Don Murphy, a staffer for a Republican who's running for Congress in true-blue Maryland. "If Brown wins, we're third and long, but our odds greatly improve."
Democrats may still be unable to conceive of a Republican victory in Massachusetts. But Republicans on the ground are having no trouble conceiving it. To many of them, it's already a reality.