High turnout in key US senate vote
Massachusetts race could scupper Obama's healthcare reform plans.
Last Modified: 19 Jan 2010 23:25 GMT

A defeat for the Democrats could affect Obama's healthcare plan [AFP]

Residents in the US state of Massachusetts have turned out in big numbers to vote in a close election for a new US senator.

Voters braved drizzle and light snow to get to the ballot box and local media reported long lines at some polling stations on Tuesday in an election that could derail the Democrats' dominance in Washington and scupper the healthcare reform plans of Barack Obama, the president.

What looked likely to be an easy Democratic victory has turned into a tight race after a surge by the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, over the past few weeks.

Latest opinion polls suggest Brown, a state senator, could defeat Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, and take away the Democrats' 60-vote supermajority in congress, which enables them to overcome Republican procedural roadblocks.

Voter worries about the economy and healthcare reform appear to have helped Brown.

In Washington, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the president does not believe healthcare reform will fail if Coakley loses.

'Surprised and frustrated'

But Obama is "both surprised and frustrated" and "not pleased" by the closeness of the Massachusetts race, Gibbs said.

Polls close at 8pm (0100 GMT on Wednesday) and results could take a few hours to emerge given the expected close vote.

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Reflecting Wall Street's expectations on healthcare reform, investors drove health insurance and drug company shares higher, betting a Brown victory would at least slow Obama's healthcare plans.

Hospital companies, which may gain more insured customers under health reform, saw their shares slump.

"If Brown wins, it is our view that Obamacare will not pass congress," Avik Roy, a healthcare analyst with Monnes Crespi Hardt, said in a research note.

Edward Kennedy, the Democrat who held the Massachusetts seat for almost 47 years, died in August of brain cancer.

Fellow Democrat Paul Kirk was appointed by the state's governor in September to occupy Kennedy's seat and will remain in the senate until a winner is sworn in.

Massachusetts last elected a Republican to the senate in 1972, but the weak economy and doubts about Obama's healthcare overhaul have moved some voters to abandon party loyalties at a crucial juncture for the president and his Democratic party.

Democrats now control 60 votes in the senate to 40 for the Republicans. The loss of one seat could hamper the Democrats' ability to cut off debate and proceed to a vote on the planned healthcare overhaul.

Brown has promised to be the Republican's 41st vote to kill healthcare legislation.

More broadly, an upset in Massachusetts, or even a narrow win for Coakley, would raise the spectre of large losses for Democrats in midterm congressional elections in November.

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