BOSTON — Democrats fought to hang onto a Senate seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy as voters turned out in strong numbers in a pivotal election Tuesday that could determine the fate of President Barack Obama's agenda, including his effort to overhaul the U.S. health care system.
Republicans voiced increasing confidence that Scott Brown, previously a relatively obscure state lawmaker, could emerge victorious in a razor-thin race that Democrat Martha Coakley seemed certain to win a few weeks ago.
Despite bad weather, election officials in Boston said the turnout was more than twice the participation rate in the December party primaries. And a line of cars, at one point, was stretched for nearly a half-mile from a polling place for a community of about 30,000 north of Boston. Some drivers turned around in exasperation.
Democrats have been forced to scramble for votes in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1. Brown, a little-known state senator, has ridden a wave of voter anger with Obama's health care plan, high unemployment and what critics call big government spending to pull the race even.
A win by Brown would eliminate the Democrats' 60-seat supermajority in the Senate and imperil some of Obama's key legislative objectives. The Democrats need all 60 votes to overcome Republican delaying tactics in the 100-seat Senate.
In contrast to the light turnout for the party primaries last month, both candidates expected a heavy turnout following the national attention thrust upon their race.
Voters faced backups at some polling stations. And election officials in Boston said the turnout was more than twice the voters recorded in December's party primaries. Secretary of State William Galvin said he expected from 1.6 million to 2.2 million people to vote — a spread of between 40 percent and 55 percent of registered voters.
In Washington, White House aides and Democratic lawmakers have been hashing out plans to save the health care bill in case of a Brown upset. The likeliest scenario would require Democrats in the House of Representatives to accept a bill the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several parts. Obama could sign it into law without another Senate vote needed. House leaders would urge the Senate to make changes later under a complex plan that would require only a simple majority.
Obama has made overhauling the U.S. health care system, which leaves nearly 50 million people uninsured, his top domestic priority. Kennedy, a brother of late President John F. Kennedy, was a longtime champion of the cause.
Massachusetts officials say it could take more than two weeks to certify the election results, which also could give Democrats more time to push the health care bill through in case Brown wins.
Brown's swift rise has spooked Democrats who had considered the seat one of their most reliable. Kennedy, who died in August, held the post for 47 years. The last time Massachusetts elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was 1972.
Brown has tried to turn Democrats' expectation of an easy win to his advantage, proclaiming, "It's not the Kennedy seat, it's the people's seat."
With the stakes so high, Obama campaigned for Coakley in Boston over the weekend and also appeared in television ads on her behalf. "Every vote matters, every voice matters," Obama said in the ad. "We need you on Tuesday."
In Washington, senior White House adviser David Axelrod said the White House expects Coakley to win. Axelrod said Obama did everything he could to help.
The Massachusetts election comes just before Obama's first anniversary in office. Obama was soaring in the polls when he was inaugurated as the first black U.S. president last Jan. 20, but voters' moods have soured over the past year, as the job market has remained stagnant.
A Suffolk University survey taken Saturday and Sunday showed Brown with double-digit leads in three communities the poll identified as bellwethers, but internal statewide polls for both sides showed a dead-heat.
A third candidate, Libertarian Joseph L. Kennedy, was polling in the single digits but said he's staying in. He is no relation to the late senator.