It’s Not Easy being AG

Martha Coakley is the most popular politician in the state, according to the Globe.  The memories of the Democrats’ humiliating loss to Scott Brown in 2010 seemed to have faded and speculation turns to another run for higher office by Coakley, who enjoys 62% public approval.  It might be worth remember that Attorneys General have a difficult time transitioning to runs for higher office.  Nearly every one elected since 1966 has tried. And failed.

Robert Quinn lost the 1974 Democratic nomination for Governor to Michael Dukakis.  Elliott Richardson, long after leaving the office, lost the GOP nomination for Senate in 1984.  Before he became AG, Frank Bellotti lost the Democratic nomination fight for Governor in 1970  to Kevin White and post-AG he lost it again in 1990 to John Silber.  Former Congressman James Shannon had his higher office hopes dashed when he lost the Senate nomination to John Kerry in 1984 and followed up that loss with the AG’s post in 1986.  Any further hopes of moving on up where lost when Scott Harshbarger defeated him for renomination in 1990.  Harshbarger famously lost an anticorrpution case against his predecessor Edward McCormick–he who lost the Democratic nomination for US Senate to a young Ted Kennedy.  He would lose the gubernatorial election of 1998 to Paul Cellucci and his successor Tom Reilly went on to lose the nomination to Deval Patrick in 2002.  Coakley capped off this decades worth of losses in the special Senate election of 2010.

You have to go back to Ed Brooke to find an AG who succeeded in an attempt to run for higher office.   The record of loss after loss is somewhat surprising given that Attorneys General are almost perfect candidates for the managerial class that Professor Cunningham has discussed at length.  Still, being the top prosecutor in any state is bound to make AG’s unpopular in segments of their own party.  And succesful skills in a prosecutor’s office don’t always translate well to skills a running for higher office.  A well run AG’s office tends to be isolated politically.

Coakley may break the mold and given her current approval rating, she must naturally be considering a run for Governor.  She would also revive a tradition of Massachusetts voters giving those who suffer a serious loss another look.  Dukakis, Kerry, Weld, Malone, Swift, Romney all had their heads handed to them at one point.  They regrouped, learned from the loss, went on to win.  But the ghost of campaigns past must surely haunt the current occupant of the Attorney General’s office.

It is also worth noting that AG’s aren’t the only ones facing long odds: State Treasurers have not fared any better–they haven’t moved on to higher office since Foster Furcolo was elected Governor in 1954.  The last Secretary of the Commonwealth to move on was Kevin White and the last State Auditor to use the office as a platform to a higher one was Francis Hurley who became Treasurer years after leaving the Auditor’s office in the mid-1930s.  Lieutenant Governors have also done better, mostly because they can assume higher office when the boss leaves: Frank Sargent, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift have all moved on for this reason.  John Kerry was elected to the US Senate.

Looking at this record makes me wonder why anyone views state office as a springboard.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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