Coakley concedes race: five lessons from her campaign

As Martha Coakley concedes the Massachusetts Senate race to Scott Brown, political analysts are already drawing lessons for the midterm elections later this year.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic candidate for the US Senate Martha Coakley concedes defeat in the special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy, in Boston on Tuesday night.

Scott Brown went from long-shot candidate to the next senator from Massachusetts Tuesday – a feat that a Republican candidate has not accomplished in this state since 1972.

Martha Coakley – the heavy favorite coming out of the Dec. 8 primary – could not hang on to the seat that Edward Kennedy occupied for 47 years, maintain the Democrats’ 60-seat supermajority in Congress, or stem the flow of voters to Mr. Brown’s camp.

Ms. Coakley’s disappointments are to likely inform both Democratic and Republican strategies for the midterm elections later this year. As Brown said in his acceptance speech: “What happened in this election can happen all over America.”

With midterms already approaching, what lessons can be drawn from Coakley’s campaign?

1. Playing it safe can be risky

“Sometimes, the biggest risk you can take in politics is not to take a risk,” Todd Domke, a Massachusetts-based GOP strategist, said about Coakley’s campaign strategy prior to Tuesday’s election.

Coakley was running as a Democrat in a state routinely ranked as one of the most Democratic in the US. So perhaps she could be forgiven for thinking that the race was decided in the primary. But voters were angry that she seemed to act that way. She was repeatedly accused of complacency and dogged by persistent rumors that she took a week off from campaigning around Christmas – a charge her camp denies.

“[Tuesday night] really expressed the arrogance of the Democratic Party and the entitlement mentality of the party,” said Rick Livingstone, who volunteered for the Brown campaign.

2. Voters are angry

“[Voters’ positions] haven’t shifted so much as they’ve gotten angry,” says Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant based in Massachusetts. “They don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth in Washington.”

Among the hot-button issues: the way healthcare reform is being handled, America’s lingering economic troubles, high unemployment rates, and Wall Street bonuses.

“I didn’t want to complain anymore, I wanted to do something,” said Jeff Odhner, a Republican from New Hampshire who drove to Massachusetts three nights last week to make hours of phone calls for Brown.

3. Define the opposition

Coakley left a little-known Brown relatively unscathed for much of the early part of the campaign.

“Martha Coakley should have defined Scott Brown before he defined himself,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Coming out of the primary, Coakley could have “put him on the defensive at a time when didn’t have much money to fight back.”

Not doing this put her in a difficult position once his campaign began building momentum. In the final weeks of the race, when polls showed Brown narrowing the gap, she had to scramble to give voters her interpretation of Brown. In part, she was forced to rely on negative advertising.

“She was very negative,” says Mary Canducci, a Democrat from the Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury who decided to vote for Brown.

4. Define the campaign

Not only did Coakley struggle to influence voters’ perceptions of Brown, but she also had trouble defining herself and her campaign for voters.

“She seemed as though she was running for reelection as attorney general as opposed to running as a new force in Washington,” Mr. Payne says.

Voters didn’t get a sense of who Coakley was. “She was pretty much a generic Democrat,” Professor Berry says. She lacked “compelling campaign themes” and the “warmth and effusiveness that would have played more favorably with the Massachusetts electorate.”

5. Independents can determine the vote

Independents were crucial to Tuesday’s outcome: A majority of voters – 51 percent – are independents in Massachusetts.

While it’s not yet known how many independents voted, “they obviously went big for Brown,” Payne says.

It was a group he targeted aggressively, and he continued an independent-oriented message on election night.

“I hope [Washington is] paying close attention, because tonight the independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken,” he said.

In contrast, Coakley’s campaign seemed to mostly target her Democratic base.

“I don’t think Democrats or Republicans have changed their views much,” Payne says. “Where the differences have happened are with independents who have traditionally voted with Democrats.”

More criticism to come

Even before Tuesday’s election, Coakley was widely criticized for her campaign – something she alluded to in her concession speech.

“There will be plenty of Wednesday-morning quarterbacking,” she said. “We will be honest about the assessment of this race. I fully respect the voters’ choice.”

On the other hand, Brown is credited with running a strong campaign.

“It’s easy for an analyst to pick apart a campaign that failed,” says Berry. But “even the most partisan Democrat would have to say, ‘Well done, Scott Brown. We’ll see you in a few years.’ ”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.


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