Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Assessing Martha Coakley’s failed campaign

Wednesday was a gloomy day for Massachusetts Democrats. In late morning, Martha Coakley held a press conference in which she formally conceded the gubernatorial race and tried to make the best of her narrow loss.

The event showcased the strengths and failings of the woman who as attorney general compiled a nationally significant record, but who wasn’t a convincing candidate for either US Senate in 2010 or governor this year.

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If you have a certain empathy with those who’ve lost, you couldn’t help but admire Coakley’s tone, which was gracious, grateful, and upbeat.

And yet, you also couldn’t help but conclude that, in the final analysis, she learned the wrong lessons from her 2010 Senate loss to Scott Brown. She knew people thought she hadn’t worked hard enough in that campaign, so she resolved to campaign much more energetically this time. She had seemed robotic in that campaign. This time, she opened up, revealing more of herself, talking affectingly about her brother’s struggles and suicide, and displaying a sly and winning wit.

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But what she failed to do was to develop a specific agenda that gave voters a real sense of her candidacy and a strong reason to vote for her that went beyond party affiliation or gender. Instead, she ran a vague and cautious values campaign. That minimized her exposure on contentious matters, but rendered her candidacy a nebulous effort defined by little beyond the assertion that she was on the side of voters and Republican nominee Charlie Baker was not.

It’s the kind of strategy pursued by a front-runner who believes she or he can win just by getting Democratically inclined voters to the polls. In a state with a large block of smart, independent-minded, ticket-splitting citizens, that’s another way of taking voters for granted.

As the one woman in the three-candidate Democratic primary, minimizing differences and running thematically sufficed. But in the general election, that tactic left Coakley as a little more than a generic Democrat hoping to keep her party in power. Given Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick’s trouble-plagued second term, that wasn’t a particularly cogent rationale.

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Baker was far more specific about his plans, which helped convey a sense of purpose that Coakley’s effort lacked. It also helped insulate Baker against various attempts to paint him as a dangerous right-winger. His focus on making state government work better struck a resonant chord, and his economic plans seemed better thought-out. Plus he showed a much larger appetite to tackle reform issues.

Money also mattered, of course, and Coakley was heavily outspent. Still, her principal problem was that, at its core, her candidacy just didn’t offer much that was memorable or compelling.

Massachusetts being Massachusetts, Coakley will likely be reviled. That’s unfortunate. Yes, she had her failings and yes, she fell short here. But she’s been a good attorney general and a dedicated public servant. This loss doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish that record.

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Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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