City and state officials in the northeastern state of Massachusetts are reporting heavy voter turnout in a key special election to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The unexpectedly close race is commanding national attention because if Democrats lose the seat, they will no longer have the 60 votes they need in the U.S. Senate to overcome Republican delaying tactics and pass legislation.
Despite wet snow falling in much of the state, Massachusetts poll workers are reporting a steady stream of voters, and in some places, voters faced backups and long lines. Election officials in Boston said the turnout was more than twice the voters recorded in December's lackluster party primaries.
Recent polls show Republican State Senator Scott Brown tied with or leading Democrat Martha Coakley, who had a strong advantage going into the race. Massachusetts has many more registered Democrats than Republicans, but Brown has gained support among independents frustrated with high unemployment rates, the economy, and government spending in Washington. Some analysts see the special election as a referendum on President Barack Obama and his agenda.
The winner of the election will fill the remaining two years of Ted Kennedy's term. The younger brother of the late President John F. Kennedy held the seat for 46 years until he died in August of brain cancer.
A win by Brown would end the Democrats' 60 seat supermajority in the Senate, jeopardizing some of President Obama's key policy goals, including health care reform. Ironically, Ted Kennedy was a long standing champion of universal health care for all Americans.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said that the political climate across the country has changed, even in Massachhusetts, where traditionally a member of the Kennedy family, or another Democratic candidate could practically count on winning.
"A year ago the landscape politically was very different than we see it today," said Michael Steele. "And as we go into this election, what I am excited about is that the American people have begun to take charge in these elections and the outcome. In the past it has kind of been formulaic."
Speaking at a news conference at the Capitol Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and other House Democratic leaders are continuing to work hard to reconcile the differences between their version of health care reform legislation and the Senate version.
"And whatever happens in Massachusetts we will have quality, affordable health care for all Americans, and it will be soon," said Nancy Pelosi.
The two bills have to be merged into one, and then re-approved by each chamber, before President Obama can sign it into law. The Senate needs 60 votes to overcome united Republican opposition, which means the Massachusetts election is crucial.
With Democrats bracing for a defeat that could derail President Obama'S top domestic priority, and Republicans feeling that a huge upset victory is within their grasp, Massachusetts voters will decide their fates.