Democratic candidates closely watch Mass. special election

Regardless of what happens in Tuesday’s special election in Massachusetts, several Democrats in big races will have to rethink themselves on healthcare.

And it’s incumbent senators in particular who have strategists concerned.

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Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) face electoral peril similar to that of Martha Coakley, except they aren’t running in the bluest state in the union. They are running (save for the case of Colorado in 2008) in a trio of red states.

Democratic strategists worry that what has happened in Massachusetts will make the lawmakers gun-shy. If voters can elect a Republican in Massachusetts, why wouldn’t they unseat, for example, an incumbent polling in the low 40s in Arkansas?

“The question remains whether this will scare off Democrats or we’ll see even more that we absolutely must pass it to salvage a difficult year,” said one Democratic strategist. “It’s either going to be all-in, literally, or people will get weak in the knees.”

Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman outlined a dream scenario for the GOP in which one Democrat gets cold feet and others quickly follow suit.

He hoped the message also spread to potential candidates like Beau Biden, who has yet to declare his intentions in Delaware’s Senate race.

“If you are a Blanche Lincoln or Michael Bennet, or you are thinking about running in Delaware, you’re going to view today differently than the day before,” Kaufman said.

Lincoln and Bennet are both up this year, with the Arkansas senator being among the last in her party to sign on to the bill. The last was Nelson, who isn’t up until 2012 but faces possibly the most disagreeable electorate.

An Omaha World-Herald poll over the weekend showed Nelson’s approval rating, which for years had been among the best in the Senate, dropping to 42 percent. That’s far lower than Sen. Mike Johanns’s (R-Neb.) 63 percent. Nelson, whose “Cornhusker Kickback” has earned him some unwanted press, also has 48 percent disapproval.

Lincoln’s danger is more immediate, as recent polls have shown her trailing little-known GOP state Sen. Gilbert Baker and other challengers in 2010.

Her spokeswoman, Katie Laning Niebaum, said Lincoln is unconcerned with what is happening in the Northeast, adding that “Massachusetts in January is not Arkansas in November.”

“The Massachusetts race is not on our minds here in Arkansas and has no bearing on what we’re doing in Arkansas,” Laning Niebaum said.

Lincoln had been a difficult get for Democrats on the healthcare bill, and several major Democratic candidates and House incumbents have balked at supporting the legislation.

One who has not is Ohio Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D), who recently sent a fundraising e-mail to his supporters for Coakley. In the e-mail, Fisher, a supporter of the healthcare bill, urges supporters to back Coakley in the name of saving healthcare reform.

Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Jim Ruvolo is working with the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, which has been supportive of the healthcare legislation in Congress. He said Democrats should stick by the bill and allow their leadership to explain it better.

But he said he’s not convinced candidates have that kind of patience.

“There’s no question: There will be some people who will misinterpret it,” Ruvolo said. “If we don’t win Tuesday, it would be a lot harder to pass the bill.”

Ruvolo and other Democrats said the main problem is that Democrats haven’t done a good job selling the bill. Therefore, getting Democratic candidates to either stay on board or join the fight will be a matter of convincing them that the plan can be sold to skeptical voters.

But if it doesn’t sell in Massachusetts, that case becomes much harder to make.

Still, Nelson appears to be ready to confront the criticism.

“I believe that, over time, as the special-interest ads subside, Nebraskans will understand the bill I support will improve their healthcare,” Nelson told the World-Herald.

Incumbents like Lincoln won’t have the luxury of such time, but they will have a cautionary tale about what could happen if their campaigns aren’t well-oiled machines — particularly on the issue of healthcare.