News Analysis

Coakley’s advantages were too much to overcome

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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Attorney General Martha Coakley may have run a less-than-scintillating campaign, but she started this sprint of a special Senate primary race with too many advantages for a trio of male Democratic opponents to overcome in a short period of time.

The only candidate to have run statewide before, she started with astronomically high favorability ratings and low negatives. Throughout a generally genteel three-month campaign, that did not change. Her rivals succeeded in improving their own images, but neither they nor the news media tarnished hers significantly. In the end, there was never a cogent argument for those voters who started the campaign liking Coakley to abandon her at the end.

She won by huge margins across vast swaths of the state yesterday.

Coakley played it safe from start to finish, and her candidacy seemed to be in jeopardy only once and then briefly. Four weeks ago she said she would vote against a health care bill in Congress if it placed restrictions on abortions. Her chief opponent, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, who two days earlier had voted against the abortion amendment but for the final version of a House bill that included it, pounced and attacked her stand. But less than 24 hours later, he, too, said he would vote against a health care overhaul if the bill that ultimately combines House and Senate versions emerges with the abortion restrictions.

Capuano was then forced to explain the inside baseball of congressional lawmaking as he attempted to draw a distinction with Coakley, who emerged from the scrape as the leading defender of the reproductive rights of women. Cultivating support among women was a Coakley priority from day one.

It was one of several head-scratching moments in a fitful Capuano campaign that often seemed to be living by its wits from day to day without a coherent, overarching strategy.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic state, Coakley is now the heavy favorite to capture the Senate seat held for 47 years by the late Edward M. Kennedy and become the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.

Her Republican opponent in the Jan. 19 special election, state Senator Scott Brown, however, will offer voters a stark contrast on many issues and try to tap into voter anxiety about job losses, soaring federal budget deficits, and a skyrocketing national debt under a Democratic administration and Congress.

“Jobs are Job One’’ will be a theme of Brown, who supports President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, while Coakley opposes it. On other issues, Brown opposes a public insurance option in a health care overhaul, and a cap-and-trade bill to reduce industrial emissions. Coakley supports both. Brown is also critical of Coakley’s support for allowing the income tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to expire.

Brown, however, has struggled to raise funds, and when the Globe asked the National Republican Senatorial Committee yesterday if it would provide him financial support, spokesman Colin Reed issued a statement praising Brown’s independence and opposition to taxes and wasteful spending, but said he could not say whether the committee’s support will include money.

Coakley, the leading Democratic fund-raiser in the race, starts the six-week dash to the final with, in addition to any unspent primary contributions, $420,000 in the bank already earmarked for the general election campaign. That is mostly from donors who gave the maximum $2,400 individual donation for the primary, plus an additional $2,400 for the general election. Besides that, she can count on outside help from allied groups. In the last 10 days of the campaign, the Service Employees International Union and abortion-rights advocacy groups spent $400,000 on mail, phone banks, and radio ads on her behalf.

Alan Khazei, the social entrepreneur who cofounded City Year, gamely waged a creditable campaign on Obama-like themes to clean up politics and promote civic engagement (“big citizenship,’’ he called it). He became more of a factor as the race went on, but the short calendar was his enemy. Some of his growth in traditional liberal areas may have come at Capuano’s expense.

Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca, a political neophyte, spent at least $7.6 million of his personal fortune, most of it on a blizzard of television ads touting his business background and knowledge of financial markets and job creation as a private investor. But in a field of bona fide Democrats with solid liberal credentials, Pagliuca proved to be a flawed messenger and a risky option for a Democratic primary electorate that leans hard to the left. He argued that he has always been a progressive but had squishy answers when asked to defend his past contributions to Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.

Pagliuca is certain to shatter by a wide margin the per-vote spending record for self-financed candidates, eclipsing the mark of Christopher F. Gabrieli in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gabrieli spent $9.9 million of his personal fortune and received 248,301 votes, an average of almost $40 per vote. By last Thursday, Pagliuca had spent more than $7.6 million of his own money. His cost per vote may be around $100.