What Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley need to do to win
Massachusetts voters, brace yourselves. It’s going to be a gubernatorial race
like no other.
Sure, the candidates will be retreads.
Charlie Baker, the Republican who flopped in his 2010 attempt to unseat Deval
Patrick, is back, trying to remake the harsh image he presented four years ago.
Martha Coakley, the two-term attorney general whose near career-ending loss to
Scott Brown in the 2010 US Senate race was followed by a remarkable political
rebirth, is back too — facing a huge task in convincing the state’s unwieldy
Democratic coalition to rally to her candidacy.
But the two major party nominees will be running in an increasingly transforming
political landscape. The 2014 gubernatorial race will be the first major state
election since a US Supreme Court ruling allowed for the huge expansion of the
influence of super PACs.
The campaign will also see an ever more sophisticated political use of social
media, a burgeoning 21st-century campaign reality that Democrats have developed
and Republicans are quickly adopting.
If Coakley and Baker intend to win in November, here’s what they need to do.
Coakley’s immediate task is to rally the Democratic coalition that has kept
Massachusetts an overwhelming blue state for decades. The only serious exception
to that trend has been voters’ penchant to elect moderate Republican governors.
And Coakley is facing that political dynamic as she takes on Baker, who fits the
GOP profile that independents and moderate Democrats have supported in the past
— similar to Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and the early versions of Mitt Romney.
It will not be easy. The pre-primary polling, showing her far ahead of
Democratic rival Steve Grossman, did her no favors. Her closer-than-expected
victory stirred the lingering anguish that the Democrats still feel about her
loss to Brown.
It’s doubtful she can stoke the sort of high passion that candidates such as
Patrick and Elizabeth Warren did to energize Democrats and independents in
recent campaigns. Instead, she will have to depend a lot more on the Democratic
machine and its allies to get her across the line.
Those bad memories of her 2010 Senate race were evident in the primary. She
performed poorly at the June party convention dominated by party activists,
losing the endorsement to Grossman. Surveys showed that a troubling number of
Grossman voters will likely defect to Baker in the general election. Even some
of third-place Democratic candidate Don Berwick’s liberal supporters are
expected to take a serious look at the GOP nominee.
Many of the political insiders, the “old boy’’ network as Coakley calls it, may
be more inclined to sit the election out or even quietly back Baker. The
threshold issue for them is that they are not convinced she is competent. It is
critical that she dispel that notion.
In her favor, Coakley, as her party’s gubernatorial nominee, now has the bully
pulpit to rally the Democratic base and wipe clean the painful 2010 loss that
left her looking wimpy and inarticulate. She has accomplished some of that
re-imaging, having easily won reelection as attorney general after the Senate
loss, and has since convinced some major constituencies in the party that she
has the political gut to win in November.
But she slid through a sleepy primary campaign without much pressure on her to
lay out a clear agenda or show the sort of political muscle it will take to beat
With a lot more voter and media attention, Coakley must forcefully make the case
for her candidacy. She needs to show she is in command of the issues, present a
strong public profile, and articulate a vision of where she wants to take the
With the chance to be the first elected female governor, she has a built-in
advantage over Baker. Women increasingly dominate the voting population. But she
has to be careful not appear to be counting on women to put her in the corner
office. Her success will depend on her cobbling together a broad coalition of
At the same time, she can’t let Baker dominate the debate with his campaign
themes of fiscal responsibility, reforming state government, and bringing good
management to bungling state bureaucracies.
Her campaign and Democratic allies can effectively define him as a Republican, a
toxic brand in Massachusetts. But one line of attack — the successful efforts by
Democrats four years ago to paint him as an aloof, wealthy corporate elite — may
be harder to make stick. With some success already, Baker has emerged this
election year intent on showing a kinder and gentler version of himself.
Coakley will also have to run against the backdrop of several serious Democratic
missteps and scandals, among them corruption in the state Probation Department;
mismanagement of the Health Connector, the state’s online insurance marketplace;
the Patrick administration’s fumbling of the rollout of medical marijuana
clinics; and a dysfunctional child welfare agency.
Baker’s best road to the corner office is his theme that he can apply his public
and private sector managerial skills to a state government reeling from what he
charges is Democratic mismanagement. His argument that his fiscal and economic
policies are better than the Democrats’ in creating jobs and a robust state
economy will play well with conservatives and moderates. He will also hit some
hot button topics — opposing tax hikes, particularly the automatic gas tax hike
plan, and outlining reforms for the state’s welfare system and Probation
But perhaps his most effective argument will be the theme that worked so well
for the Weld, Cellucci, and Romney candidacies: that he will be a check on the
heavy Democratic grip on the state Legislature. Weld, who remains popular, is
expected to play a very visible role in the fall campaign.
Baker’s vulnerability is both his tendency to come across as an argumentative
know-it-all (a younger, more brash Baker could easily get into a policy argument
just standing in a doughnut line) and the fact that he is a Republican.
He can display his better nature, but it will be tough to run from the GOP
mantel. His controversial $10,000 donation to Governor Chris Christie’s New
Jersey GOP — the subject of a ongoing pay-to-play inquiry — is likely to be
thrown in his face. He has heaped praise on Christie, an unpopular figure among
Democrats, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, a major funder for
the Baker candidacy.
Since he announced his candidacy a year ago, Baker has so far been effective in
modulating his image, coming across as the cheery, back-slapping campaigner. He
is surrounding himself with women, who were turned off by his campaign four
years ago. He is highlighting his moderate to liberal positions on social
issues, particularly abortion and gay marriage, far more than in 2010, and
sounding a good deal more environmentally sensitive.
But he faces serious tactical hurdles. The Democratic powerbrokers and various
factions may not be happy with Coakley, but they are intent on blocking Baker
from the governor’s office. Those forces are formidable and experienced, hugely
overshadowing anything the Republicans can muster for Baker other than raising
He is also up against an incumbent Democratic governor, Patrick, still stewing
over some of Baker’s tactics in the 2010 race, intent on making sure he doesn’t
turn over the keys of the governor’s office to the Republican nominee. Patrick
remains personally popular and is one of the best voices on the campaign trail
the state has ever seen. His performance at Coakley’s election night party this
week showed he has shed his previous reluctance to engage in negative
campaigning as he threw roundhouse punches at Baker.
With unions and other Democratic friendly groups ready to finance ads for
Coakley and attack him, Baker needs the Republican Governors Association badly.
It has already spent several million dollars promoting him and attacking Coakley.
But the association has not made Massachusetts a high priority for the general
election — a troubling prospect for Baker.
Baker and his strategists also have to deal with some effective, although not
entirely accurate, attacks from the Democrats and Coakley, who are already
hitting him on several fronts: his misstep in declaring that the US Supreme
Court decision on the Hobby Lobby case didn’t matter in Massachusetts, a
statement he had to quickly revise; his involvement with the Big Dig; and his
management of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.