Polls show Martha Coakley is a gubernatorial front-runner, an enviable position for a candidate who earned the scorn of Democrats nationwide just four years ago after losing a special Senate election in deep-blue Massachusetts. But the Bay State’s peculiar nominating process is threatening to once again send the state attorney general to an unexpected defeat—this time at the hands of her own party.
Democratic activists began meeting earlier this month to elect the roughly 5,000 delegates who will convene in Worcester in June to vote at the party nominating convention. Delegates will vote for their favored candidates, and those who meet the 15-percent threshold will earn a spot on the September primary ballot. Coakley is all but certain to meet this threshold, but the question is how much a second-place finish to state Treasurer and former Democratic National Committee chairman Steven Grossman would set her back.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Democratic state Senate President Therese Murray, who has endorsed Coakley, said she “could lose” the convention to Grossman, despite her huge edge in the polls. A recent Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll showed Coakley with a 45-point lead over Grossman in a primary matchup. But a loss at the convention, where Grossman is better-networked, could convey a sign of weakness for a candidate who already has a lot to prove: No Democratic candidate has won the primary after losing the convention in the past five gubernatorial elections.
“The narrative that she’ll be able to win the primary even if she loses the convention is premature,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “It will complicate her bid if she can’t gain the support of her party’s core. It will end up raising doubts about her viability as a candidate.”
The Coakley campaign is trying to temper expectations built up from her favorable poll numbers. Campaign manager Tim Foley recently told the Globe that the campaign expects that Grossman will win the caucuses. The discrepancy between Coakley’s lead in the polls and Grossman’s strength among the party faithful represents a schism between activists still wary of Coakley after her 2010 loss and a general electorate that’s more forgiving.
The multiweek caucusing process to choose delegates for the convention will continue through March 2. Roughly a third of delegates were chosen during the first weekend of caucusing which began on Feb. 8, and unofficial early reports after the first few days showed Grossman, who is also a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, reaping the rewards of decades spent engaging with candidates and volunteers down to the local school board and town council level. Boston Magazine‘s David Bernstein concluded there’s “no doubt he won the [first] weekend.”
Grossman was recently endorsed by fellow former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, and the support serves as reminder of the candidate’s deep ties to the national party. Grossman’s savvy as a party fundraiser is also apparent in his campaign haul: He has over $1 million on hand, more than any other candidate.
Coakley and Grossman aren’t the only two Democrats in the race. Former Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick’s campaign is confident he’ll surpass the 15-percent threshold to make it a three-way primary.
The eventual winner of the primary will likely face 2010 GOP nominee Charlie Baker in November. Baker, like Coakley, will have the benefit of knowing what mistakes to avoid after a tough loss—Baker lost by 6 points—and he will have the advantage of running against a Democratic nominee who will emerge with less than two months to make the case against him before Election Day. Ubertaccio, the Stonehill College professor, thinks Baker “presents a bigger challenge this year” than he did four years ago when “he tried to run a tea-party race that didn’t suit him.”
Democrats are preparing for a formidable challenge in the general election. Grossman campaign manager Josh Wolf says Baker “will be a tough, well-funded opponent.”
If this year’s Democratic convention goes a long way to picking the party’s nominee, it won’t be the first time. John Walsh, the former Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman and current director of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Together PAC, managed Patrick’s first campaign when he scored a come-from-behind victory at the 2006 convention. The win dismayed the presumed front-runner that year, Democratic Attorney General Thomas Reilly, and set Patrick on course to capture his party nomination and the eventual election.
Of 2014’s contest, Walsh says, “I don’t think this election is a foregone conclusion.”