Democrats Dilemma: Might Martha Coakley Faint During Debate?

victorian-lady-faintingCould Martha Coakley capture the Democratic gubernatorial election only to get the vapors while debating Charlie Baker and faint dead away like some delicate nineteenth century Victorian spinster?

As my colleague Professor Ubertaccio wrote in Martha Coakley might “unravel at any moment” it is panic season among some Democratic insiders. Is Coakley such an inept politician that she singlehandedly blew the 2010 race? Was it winnable or did conditions she couldn’t control contribute to the defeat? Did some other Democrat play a role? (I nominate Barack Obama). And is she heading for the fainting couch, a victim of female hysteria?

The takeaway from Frank Phillips’s September 13 Boston Globe article Trepidation remains over Martha Coakley is that Democrats sure do think highly of  Coakley as AG but are aghast that she would seek the corner office.

Insider-in-the-know narratives tend to focus on personality over more important factors. But some conditions existed in January 2010 such as a disastrous economy that many blamed on President Barack Obama, who was suffering from low job approval.

So let’s consider some findings from 1, 2, 3, Many Tea Parties: A Closer Look at the 2010 Massachusetts Senate Race, by my UMass Boston colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen.  They argue that the 2010 special featured decreased turnout in many low-income Democratic voting towns. Ferguson and Chen contended that the “Obama administration’s unwillingness to face down the banks and slowness in dealing with the recession have demoralized and outraged the party’s electoral base.” At least one poll showed Republican Scott Brown winning union households. Ferguson and Chen attribute that anomaly to the president’s insistence on taxing medical benefits that unions had collectively bargained. Polls showed Obama hovering around 50% approval (sometimes under 50%) in Massachusetts.

So it wasn’t a terrific year to be running as a Democrat, even with the built-in advantages the party has in this state.

Martha Coakley did not run a great race in 2010. Most times in Massachusetts we have a Democratic primary then sit around waiting for the swearing-in. That’s about what the AG did and few “insiders” counseled her otherwise.

How bad a politician is Martha Coakley? Well let’s recall the primary fight in 2009 when she absolutely turned Congressman Michael Capuano inside out on the abortion question. She announced that she would not vote for Obamacare if it contained a provision restricting federal funding for abortion services. His political instincts honed to razor sharpness, Capuano attacked Coakley. Until he fell in line behind her position the next day.

We are now awaiting Congressman Capuano’s announcement of whether he will enter the gubernatorial primary. Part of his media narrative will be Harvard smart plus Somerville street tough. Maybe at some point we’ll be reminded that in 2009 he got beat by a girl.

Then the Democrats can go back to worrying that their nominee might be overcome by the Victorian swoon.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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4 Responses to Democrats Dilemma: Might Martha Coakley Faint During Debate?

  1. D. S. says:

    The reason why turn-out was so low in those areas was because there was no field organization to turn out that vote. Not simply not “shaking hands,” but rather emphasizing a name-recognition and ad-driven message, as opposed to voter-to-voter, door-by-door grassroots organizing, and being present in these important communities.

    It is true that Coakley was the first casualty of a teaparty wave that swept the country in 2010 midterms. But revisionist accounts now shouldn’t discount what a ham-fisted campaign she mounted. This is the track-record that has some “insiders” (and on the ground *volunteers*) anxious. Money and name-recognition can only take a candidate so far.

  2. Tim says:

    While I have mentioned this before since the Great Recession you are seeing a more partisan split open in the state on regional basis. On side are the bell weather 495 belt communities that throughout most of the 1990s provided the political muscle to elect GOP Governors but in presidential elections such as 1996, 2000, and 2004 could be counted on to pretty solidly support the Democratic candidate(There have always been pockets of GOP support in places like Lynnfield and Boxford but were effectively irrelevant).

    In the 2010 special election though Brown was able to build a base of support in these 495 belt communities to victory similar to that of Weld, et all. This was notable as historically these communities stayed Democratic in special elections. The Democrats though responded in the next two Senate elections with a new electoral map of Western Mass Liberals, Outer Cape and Islands Liberals, minority voters, younger voters, and higher turnout in core urban communities such as Boston and Cambridge. So I think the real question is do the Democrats in the next gubernatorial election want to go in a more “progressive” direction(I suspect Prof. Duqette would be in favor) and steamroll the increasingly GOP leaning suburbs such as Andover and Tewksbury or do they remain in a more 1990s view that the Andover’s and Tewksbury’s represent the political center of the state. All of this is important in terms of which candidate the Democrats choose. A more right leaning candidate won’t be able to amp up the base but a more left leaning one will encounter great difficulty in Andover, North Andover et all.

  3. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Thanks to both D.S. and Tim for their comments. Tim as always gives me a lot to think about especially in terms of political geography. Prof. Duquette has been calling for a more ideological and moralist Democratic Party for years.

    I don’t doubt that the lack of a strong organizational effort cost Coakley in 2010, but I do doubt it was worth the five point margin of victory. She was a pretty poor campaigner in 2010 but other factors were probably more important. Yet the personal shortcomings or perceived strengths of the candidates tend to drown out those factors in the media narrative and I’ll have more to say about that soon.

  4. Pingback: The Stumbling and Bumbling Martha Coakley | MassPoliticsProfs

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