How Coakley Blew It in Massachusetts



Nine days ago, on Jan. 10, The Boston Globe carried a rather heartening headline for Democrats: “Senate Poll: Coakley Up 15 Points.” Now, on the morning of the Massachusetts special election pitting

"If Brown wins, and he may, it will be the biggest political upset of my adult life.”

So how did this happen? 

Despite all the Democratic hand-wringing, garment-rending, and finger-pointing already on display in the press, the answer, I think, is actually pretty simple: the Coakley campaign took the voters of Massachusetts for granted. Usually, this wouldn't have been much of a problem; the state is so overwhelmingly Democratic that any candidate with a "D" attached to his or her name is virtually guaranteed victory. Clearly, Coakley was counting on Massachusetts's liberal history to carry her effortlessly across the finish line. But this year, in this political environment, that wasn't enough—and the assumption that it was has turned out to be the very thing that may do her in.

Let's review, shall we? On Dec. 8, 2009, Coakley won the Democratic Senate primary by a whopping 19 percentage points. A normal candidate would've hit the streets, shaken some hands, given some speeches, and taken the fight to her opponent. But Coakley, who was leading Brown in the polls by 31 percent at that point, decided to "go dark" instead. Her logic was simple and seemingly safe: during the holidays, voters aren't paying attention to politics, so why give them an opportunity to turn against me when I can just quietly back into the job? As Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote earlier this month, she "For all we know, she's spending much of her time at home with the shades drawn waiting for Jan. 19, Election Day, to come and go."

When Coakley eventually emerged from seclusion, everything she said, and every move she made, seemed only to reinforce the impression that she was uninterested in earning votes. She refused all invitations to debate Brown unless an irrelevant third-party candidate was included onstage. She derided the process of "standing outside Fenway Park . . . in the cold . . . shaking hands" as if retail politicking were not only unnecessary but beneath her, choosing instead to rely on key political leaders, Democratic activists, and union organizers to get people to the polls. She flew to Washington for a fat-cat fundraiser when she could've been courting Massachusetts voters. Time and again, Coakley seemed not to take seriously the possibility that Massachusetts could choose anyone but her, citing a visit to her sister overseas as foreign-policy experience, reversing her position on capital punishment, and releasing an ad so generic as to be almost insulting. None of her much-discussed gaffes were particularly serious from a policy perspective. But most of them—misspelling Massachusetts; calling former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling a "Yankee fan"—reinforced her disengaged image.

Coakley's implication here was clear: that Massachusetts should (and would) vote for her no matter what. Not surprisingly, this arrogance was galling to voters dissatisfied with the status quo—those who had been expected to vote for the same elite candidate for decadesand were now looking for a way to register their dissatisfaction—and so they started to give Brown, who had been campaigning vigorously, a second look. As it turned out, he represented a reasonably attractive alternative: a pro-choice, antitax Republican to the left of two thirds of Massachusetts Republicans—and, for that matter, of Dede Scozzafava, the victim of a GOP purge in NY-23 last fall—who boasted a familiar blue-collar background and was perfectly willing to scrap for votes. The key moment came in the Jan. 13 debate, when moderator David Gergen referred to "Teddy Kennedy's seat" and Brown stepped in to correct him.

Regardless of whether Coakley wins or loses today, the papers, blogs, and cable chat shows will be overflowing with bloviation about "what it all means." Have voters turned against President Obama? the pundits will ask. Have they rejected the Democratic health-care plan? But I'm not sure these rationales ring true. Obama still earns robust approval ratings in Massachusetts, and because the Bay State already enjoys near-universal coverage, voters there are probably less concerned with Washington reform efforts than they are in the other 49 states. This isn't to say Democrats won't have trouble elsewhere. They undoubtedly will. But ultimately I think Coakley should serve as a cautionary tale rather than a symptom of a larger Democratic disease. In the current political environment, when voters are stressed out and eager to punish someone for their economic woes, just being a Dem in a blue state or district isn't enough. However safe you may seem, standing outside a ballpark in the cold, shaking hands, probably isn't such a bad idea.