Is Massachusetts really turning Republican?

Could Scott Brown replace the late Ted Kennedy?

If, like me, you think of Massachusetts as the sort of place where they weigh the Democratic vote, rather than count it, you'll be surprised to read that the state's junior seat in the Senate could be won by an anti-tax, socially conservative Republican.

But with six days to go until voters head to the polls, commentators are taking seriously the possibility that the Republican Scott Brown could replace the late Ted Kennedy.

The speculation was triggered by a series of polls putting Brown within touching distance of the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley. Coakley's lead has fallen from 30 per cent in October to 15 per cent at the start of this month and has now, according to one poll, evaporated all together.

Brown's progress is even more striking considering he lies well to the right of where successful Massachusetts Republican candidates usually reside. In the past, the party has fielded fiscally conservative but socially liberal candidates, such as the former governer Mitt Romney, whose support for gay rights dogged his campaign for the GOP presidential ticket.

But not only does Coakley oppose same-sex marriage, he supports waterboarding terrorism suspects and has vowed to destroy health-care reform.

Few psephologists predict a Republican victory, and most commentators have dismissed the poll showing Brown ahead by 1 per cent as an outlier. But the hype behind his campaign says much about the desire of the right-wing media to write off Obama's presidency as a failure and to suggest that the Democrats will suffer huge losses in this year's midterms.

Should Brown pull off a victory against the odds, he would be the first Republican to do so since 1947. He has vowed, if elected, to be the "41st" senator: the one who could tip the Senate against health-care reform.

It would be grim indeed if Brown replaced Kennedy and defeated what the late senator described as "the cause of my life".


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.