Martha Coakley might “unravel at any moment”

Democrats, it’s time to move on.

Your inability to move beyond January 2010 when it comes to Martha Coakley is embarrassing. 

According to Frank Phillips in the Boston Globe, the Attorney General “still faces large pockets of resistance from Democratic Party leaders and activists who have not yet forgotten her disastrous performance.”

Coakley absolutely deserves blame for the 2010 loss.   But beneath the surface, so do many, many other Democrats including, I’m sure, a good portion of those who reside in the “large pockets of resistance.”

It is certainly easier for many in her party to simply believe the Attorney General is completely at fault for their loss in that special election.  But to do so overlooks the very real dynamics of that race, the impact Scott Brown had on the electorate that year, and the political change taking place in the country.  Perhaps another Democrat could have won that seat but we’ll never know.  In part because Coakley handily defeated three of them in a primary.

It’s also fascinating to parse this statement by Lou DiNatale:

“Even though she dominates in the surveys, the Democratic activists remain concerned about her ability to perform as a candidate in the long run,’’ DiNatale said. “They understand she could unravel at any moment in a tough general election race.’’.

Unravel at any moment.

I suppose the key here is the “tough general election race.”  Truth is that Republicans and Democratic opponents have rarely been able to touch her so she doesn’t always face a tough race.

After she lost the “Kennedy” seat to Scott Brown and earned the enmity of Democrats across the county, Coakley went on to face token opposition in that fall’s general election.

Republicans fielded a strong ticket for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer and Auditor in 2010.  But they failed to nominate a candidate to take on the damaged Coakley at their convention.  Their write-in candidate for the primary, Jim McKenna, barely dinged the AG.  She took 63% of the vote.

That victory was a bit less stratospheric than her 2006 victory of 73%.  Or her opponent-less reelection as District Attorney of the state’s most populous county in 2002 or her 71% victory in 1998 to the post.

Indeed, Coakley has been an electoral powerhouse.  She defeated 2 opponents by 20 points in her Democratic primary for DA in 1998 and then overtook three opponents by nearly the same margin in her primary race for US Senate in 2009.

Brown beat her decisively in 2010 but only five points in a race that, early on, everyone predicted as safely Democratic.

Consider also other titans of Massachusetts politics who somehow were able to put a loss behind them before leaping forward:

  • The Democratic ticket in 1970 of Kevin White and Michael Dukakis lost to Frank Sargent by 14 points.  The Duke came back four years later to unseat Sargent only to lose the Democratic nomination four years later by just under 9 points.  He’d roar back in 1982 to win two more terms as well as his party’s presidential nomination.  White would go on to serve a total of 16 years as Mayor of Boston.
  • Bill Weld lost his 1978 for Attorney General by an astounding 56 points.  He’d go on to serve as US Attorney, win the Corner office in 1990 and get reelected with 71% of the vote in 1994.
  • John Kerry lost a 1972 race for Congress by 8 points.  He’d later go on to serve as Lieutenant Governor, then Senator, and now Secretary of State.
  • Mitt Romney lost his 1994 race for US Senate by 17 points before winning the governorship in 2002.

See a pattern?  I sure do.  Mike, Kevin, Bill, John and Mitt could lose, sometimes by an extraordinary margin, and retool for a future run.  But not Martha the successful prosecutor and popular Attorney General in her second term.  No, she might “unravel at any moment.”

Martha Coakley faces a number of challenges as she launches her next campaign, not the least of which is the curse of the AG’s office.  Like anyone who once ran poorly, she’ll need to demonstrate that she and her team have learned some hard truths about their failures and plan to run differently.

Even if she does, she’ll never win over certain members of her own party who can’t see anything beyond January 2010 when they think of her.

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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