With six weeks to go before the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the sniping between Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman — and the political action committee that supports him — has dramatically intensified.
Over the past three days, a pro-Grossman super PAC ad attacked Coakley on gun control, followed by a response video by Coakley attacking Grossman for not disavowing the super PAC. Then there were suggestions of collusion, allegations of intimidation, charges of hypocrisy, and pleas for money to combat all of the above.
In a campaign where there are few stark policy differences among the three Democratic candidates — Coakley, Grossman, and former health care administrator Don Berwick — and polls show Coakley with a commanding double-digit lead, her opponents are trying vigorously to differentiate themselves.
But political specialists say all of this amounts to little more than political theater to most voters and will not necessarily capture their hearts — or their votes.
The new war of words began Monday, with an anti-Coakley ad produced by Mass Forward, the super PAC supporting Grossman. It highlights a point Grossman has been trying to stress for months: that he supports a plan to restrict gun purchases to one per month, a policy Coakley opposes.
The 30-second, $250,000 ad features four Boston-area mothers holding pictures of their smiling sons, who are now all dead. The ad says Coakley is the “wrong choice for governor” because she does not support Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to limit gun purchases to one a month.
Coakley’s campaign had a response waiting: a 60-second Web video decrying the influence of outside money from super PACs, which must legally function independent of a candidate’s campaign but allow for unlimited contributions from people, corporations, associations, and unions.
The campaign went on to suggest in a statement that the timing and cost of the ad “could raise questions of collusion” between Grossman’s campaign and the PAC, a suggestion both Grossman and the PAC flatly denied — quickly pivoting back to their talking points.
And they kept going.
Grossman’s camp has repeatedly criticized Coakley this week for “talking politics” in response to the ad while avoiding the issue it raises.
That sentiment was reiterated by the PAC, which said Wednesday that Coakley is deflecting “with bogus charges and hypocritical behavior.”
‘“What is most disappointing about Attorney General Coakley’s response to this ad is that she has not addressed the questions it raised about her record on gun control and that she has shown a lack of respect for the women in the ad,” said Colette Phillips, a Boston-based public relations executive and cochairwoman of Mass Forward. “These women are not ‘shadowy corporations’ or ‘special interests,’ they are Massachusetts mothers who have lost children to senseless gun violence.”
And then, an accusation of intimidation.
The PAC and its supporters said this week that Coakley is guilty of making “veiled threats.”
‘Most voters think this is just noise. . . . This sort of thing just seems like politics as usual.’
Coakley sent a letter to Barry White, who started the pro-Grossman group with his wife, Eleanor, asking him to publicly disclose whether he accepted contributions from people or companies doing business with Grossman’s office during his tenure. The June 16 letter was signed “Martha Coakley, Attorney General and Candidate for Governor.”
“Ms. Coakley made veiled threats against Mr. White, demanding that his group disclose information not legally required and insinuated that she would take action if it did not by including an arbitrary deadline for his response,” attorney Donald Glazer said in a statement provided by the PAC, which said he was asked to review the letter by White as a friend not as a lawyer for the group.
Glazer said in the statement that it appears to violate state laws governing the conduct of public officials — a suggestion the Coakley camp dismissed.
And several of Coakley’s opponents described her as hypocritical for decrying special interest money, pointing to a $5,000 campaign contribution from a government employee union, which funds its own super PAC that launched an ad attacking Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker.
Coakley’s campaign dismissed the attacks, saying she “has a history of standing up to special interests on behalf of consumers and so it is no surprise special interests are attacking her candidacy for governor.”
She opposes the one-gun-a-month law because “we need to focus [on] broader solutions that will stem the flow of illegal guns into Massachusetts from states with more lenient gun laws,” her campaign spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin said in a statement Wednesday.
As for making threats against Mass Forward, McGilpin said: “The letter was sent on campaign stationery and was clearly sent as a candidate for governor. If Barry White and the Grossman super PAC want to clear up any ‘suggestion of collusion’ they can do it very easily — by releasing a list of who has given money to run these attack ads.”
Amid all the fighting, Coakley tried to use the super PAC ad to her own advantage — asking supporters to send money to help fight back.
By midweek, Grossman’s camp had not persuaded Coakley to fully talk about the one-gun-a-month issue. Coakley had not managed to get Grossman to decry outside money in politics. But the argument showed no sign of stopping.
Clearly, the campaigns are engaged and are trying to convince their most ardent supporters that they are fighting the good fight. But political scientists caution them against going too far — for fear of turning off everyone else.
Voters care about big-picture issues but tune out when politicians and their operatives begin parsing the minutiae of the modern political process, said Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“Most voters think this is just noise,” O’Brien said. “People have little confidence in government, especially when it comes to campaigns and ethics and governance. This sort of thing just seems like politics as usual.”
Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College, said, “As soon as you start getting things like charge vs. counter charge . . . a lot of people turn that stuff off. It doesn’t grab voters. Politicians and consultants think it does, but really doesn’t.”
It’s also unlikely to end soon, not with the Sept. 9 primary 41 days away.