NEEDHAM, Mass.—A springtime special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat would normally generate a collective political yawn in Massachusetts -- except when the seat once belonged to a certain Scott Brown.
Democrats still are stinging and Republicans still giddy over Brown's stunning victory in the race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, and his subsequent rise to national folk hero status among GOP faithful has Democrats hoping that recapturing Brown's old legislative district would be -- if nothing else -- a moral victory and a Republican momentum stopper.
"I wouldn't deny that it has some special significance," John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said of Tuesday's special election.
Significant, Walsh added, considering the seat previously was held by "THE Republican, THE Scott Brown who can generate tens of thousands of people in Arizona for John McCain, and he's jetting to Hawaii and Pennsylvania and all that stuff."
Walsh has assigned several staffers to work full-time on behalf of the Democratic candidate, Peter Smulowitz, and the party is manning a phone bank. The GOP, equally intent on keeping Brown's seat, also is running a phone bank and has four full-time staffers working for its candidate, state Rep. Richard Ross, party chairwoman Jennifer Nassour said.
Both contestants paint themselves as independent as they, like Brown did so successfully in January, key in on the unenrolled voters who could tip the scales Tuesday. But their backgrounds also suggest strong party ties.
Smulowitz, a 33-year-old hospital emergency room physician from Needham, is a California native making his first run for political office. He spent a summer in college volunteering in Kennedy's Washington D.C. office, was a volunteer organizer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign and served as state director for a national doctors group pushing for health care reform.
Ross, 55, has been Brown's close friend and political shadow, following the now U.S. Senator's path from selectmen in the town of Wrentham and then to the state House of Representatives after Brown moved to the Senate in 2004. A funeral home owner, Ross said his family and Brown's grew up together and often shared Sunday brunch after church.
And, yes, Ross drives a pickup truck on the campaign trail. (It's black, not green like Brown's, and Ross insists he owned his first.)
The battleground is a long skinny district stretching north-south from the bedroom Boston suburbs of Needham, Wellesley, Wayland and Sherborn to the working-class city of Attleboro on the Rhode Island border. Both campaigns have focused on job creation and containing health care costs.
For Smulowitz, a strong showing in the northern suburbs, with their core of liberal, progressive voters, is crucial. They were towns carried in the January U.S. Senate race by Democrat Martha Coakley, while Brown won convincingly in the district's southern towns.
"I'm certainly coming from a background outside of the establishment of Beacon Hill," Smulowitz said after fielding questions about everything from Medicaid to immigration to high cable TV bills during a recent visit with seniors -- another critical voting bloc -- at an assisted living facility in Wayland.
Smulowitz capitalized on his outsider status to beat a more entrenched candidate, state Rep. Lida Harkins, in last month's Democratic primary. But the victory came with a price.
Harkins was enraged by a Smulowitz campaign flier which she believed was intended to unfairly link her to three former House speakers who were brought down by corruption charges. Harkins, an 11-term legislator, took the unusual step of refusing to endorse the party nominee after the primary.
"Sometimes it takes time to move on from hurt feelings and I know that," said Smulowitz, who said he never intended to question Harkins' integrity and has since reached out to her in an effort to smooth things over.
During a recent stop in Smulowitz' hometown, Ross accepted an endorsement from the Massachusetts National Federation of Independent Businesses He said he was proud of his campaign and felt good about his chances on Tuesday.
Touring Boston Saw & Knife Co., a small manufacturer, Ross emphasized themes of less government, lower taxes and fewer mandates on small business. And he was eager to draw comparisons with Brown in the weekend before the vote.
"We share the same kind of values, and we realize how few of us there are in government to talk about what is of real concern to voters," Ross said in an interview.
Unlike the U.S. Senate race in which Brown ran as the proverbial "41st vote," Tuesday's result won't even dent the balance of power in the Legislature. Even a Ross win would give Republicans only five of 40 seats in the Senate and the percentages are even more lopsided in the House.
But, with a hotly contested governor's race on the horizon, both parties are clearly aware of the continuing Brown factor and the implications that a Democratic win in his old district could have on the political psyche.