Coakley aides paint portrait of missteps on campaign trail

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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Befuddlement. Anger. Shock.

Democrats were feeling lots of things yesterday, none of them very good, as they woke up to a new political reality: They had lost the Senate election, given up a seat they had owned for six decades, and were forced to accept that a Republican, Scott Brown, is headed to Washington, D.C.

What went wrong? A lot, according to a portrait of Democrat Martha Coakley’s campaign painted by people who either closely observed it or were involved in some fashion.

They described a campaign that was too sure of its own success, that waited too long to call in the cavalry, that made key missteps, including focusing on abortion at the expense of the economy, and that did little to court voters in the communities that led Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama to huge victories.

Coakley and her advisers also lost the new media war, allowing Brown to generate far more attention online through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And by many accounts, they paid insufficient attention to the bread and butter of political campaigning, such as blanketing the state with signs and getting out and meeting voters.

The lapses were particularly noticeable in minority communities, traditionally bastions of Democratic votes, which did not turn out in high numbers Tuesday.

“She came in late, at the last minute, and people were frustrated,’’ said one Democratic activist, who, like most people interviewed, agreed to talk without being named. “They’re not happy with that kind of campaigning. If you get in there early, people feel respected.’’

In addition, people familiar with the campaign say, Coakley aides made no concerted effort to involve her three primary rivals or their networks and included the Kennedy family in the campaign only after the Kennedys themselves pushed the issue.

Coakley declined to comment yesterday, other than to say through aides that she plans to run for reelection as attorney general. Two of her top aides, senior strategist Dennis Newman and campaign manager Kevin Conroy, also declined to comment.

Some close to the campaign say they were overtaken by national events beyond their control, including prolonged health care negotiations in Washington and an attempted jet bombing on Christmas Day.

“It happens and you don’t see it coming,’’ said one person close to the campaign. “The campaign did a great job on field, on fund-raising, on outreach, on press, on issues. We were consistently out there with detailed issue papers and platforms and talked to people about Martha’s record. Things nationally just overtook it.’’

Others disagree sharply, saying that Coakley, despite not being a traditional political figure, allowed herself to be painted as the establishment, while Brown, though he has been in politics longer, cast himself as a fresh face.

Brown and Coakley also ran very different campaigns. Over the six-week race, Coakley did very little retail politicking, relying on endorsements from mayors, lawmakers, and unions.

She went for a weeklong stretch, from Dec. 23 to Dec. 30, during which she held no public events.

Brown relied on a grass-roots network and, yes, a truck, and he seemed to catch fire at exactly the right time. Even many Democrats were impressed with his campaign.

“There’s some familiar experiences that I sense between Scott Brown’s victory last night and my own three years ago,’’ Patrick told reporters yesterday. “It was against the odds, it was with all of the political insiders saying it can’t happen, and it was about inviting people feeling disenfranchised to reconnect.’’

Some people involved in the campaign said Coakley did not appear to have a clear sense of who her constituency was, while Brown clearly identified his voters, including many independents and even Democrats who chafed at the party’s policies in Washington. He campaigned outside Fenway Park and Bruins hockey games and surrounded himself with everyman sports heroes such as Curt Schilling and Doug Flutie.

By many accounts, the Coakley campaign lost the television ad war, too. Brown had put up two ads, both of which drew attention, before Coakley took out her first on Jan. 6, less than two weeks before the election.

Local and national Democrats began casting blame for the outcome even before polls closed. State Senate President Therese Murray, who helped lead fund-raising efforts for Coakley, said Monday night that they ran out of money after the primary and that the national party organizations did not do enough to help.

“We couldn’t get any of our Democratic organizations to give us any funds,’’ she said. “They kept saying, ‘She’s going to walk in.’ ’’

But Murray said the campaign knew several weeks ago that it was in trouble. A pivotal moment came Jan. 4, when a poll showed Coakley’s lead evaporating. “It wasn’t until that poll that everyone outside of here woke up,’’ Murray said.

The same poll, conducted by Rasmussen Reports, would prove a turning point for Republicans. Money began pouring into Brown’s campaign, allowing him to air new ads, gain more national attention and thus more money and volunteers who would help propel him to victory.

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at