How Martha Coakley Could Lose Again

Polls show the former Senate candidate with a big lead in this year’s Massachusetts gubernatorial primary. But the Bay State’s nominating rules mean she’s no shoo-in.

BOSTON - JANUARY 19: U.S. Senate Democratic nominee Martha Coakley gives a concession speech January 19, 2010 at the Sheraton Boston in Boston, Massachusetts. Coakley lost to Republican challenger State Senator Scott Brown in a special election to fill the seat of late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Feb. 20, 2014, midnight

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.”

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