Three reasons you shouldn’t underestimate Martha Coakley

September 16, 2013

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) is back in the mix for higher office nearly four years after an embarrassing special Senate election loss to Republican Scott Brown.

This time Coakley is running for governor. And despite her disastrous 2010 effort, Coakley is arguably the candidate to beat in what is shaping up as a crowded contest to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick (D).


Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. (Steven Senne/AP)

There are three main reasons for this.

1. She is very popular. A Boston Globe poll released last year showed Coakley was the most popular statewide official in the commonwealth. It's Coakley's record and style as attorney general that people like, said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who is neutral in the governor's race. "She is considered to be very fair, very thoughtful, very evenhanded," said Marsh, who pointed to Coakley's work on a variety of fronts, including health care, gay rights, and sex trafficking. The challenge for Coakley will be to translate being a popular attorney general and prosecutor into being a successful candidate for governor, since those are two very different things. But this much we know: She starts from a pretty favorable position out of the gate.

2. She learned a painful lesson. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to make a mistake and a live through the consequences. Coakley made several blunders in 2010 (including dissing the idea of stumping in front of Fenway Park, a major no-no in the sport-centric region) and absorbed a lot of blame. But she appears to have reflected on her loss and is determined not to re-live it. "I know what it's like to lose a race," Coakley said in her campaign kickoff video. The 18-stop tour Coakley is embarking on appears to be a signal she is trying to correct the problems she had as a retail campaigner in 2010. Finally, she's going a different route in putting together a campaign team. Coakley's hired Doug Rubin, a blue-chip Democratic strategist who worked for Patrick and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D).

3. A field with no clear favorites. The Democratic competition includes former Boston Globe columnist and Obama administration homeland security official Juliette Kayyem; former administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald M. Berwick; state Treasurer Steven Grossman; state Sen. Daniel A. Wolf, and biotech executive and physician Joseph Avellone. None are big-time contenders with a demonstrated ability to clear a field. That's more good news for Coakley.

***

All that said, Coakley  is not a shoo-in. For one thing, she still has to prove she can be a more effective retail politician. (Scott Brown excelled at this in 2010, making Coakley's shortcomings on the trail all the more palpable.) If she can't, it could be a long campaign.

And even if she wins the primary, the general election could be a real race for Coakley. Before Patrick, the last four governors were Republicans. (This cycle, GOP feels good about Charlie Baker, its likely nominee.) Then there's the "curse" of the attorney general's office when it comes to gubernatorial races.

Coakley faces a series of tough tests. But don't think that just because she struggled badly in 2010 she can't win in 2014. She can. There is as clear a path for her as anyone in the race. The question is whether she will take advantage of it.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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