With a month to go before the primary, the Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, one of the least-energized statewide races in years, is on the verge of breaking out.
In the weeks between now and the Sept. 9 election, voters will see a barrage of ads, a series of high-profile debates, and mailboxes full of campaign literature. For the campaigns, this is when all their grass-roots organizing, fund-raising prowess, and strategic planning will be put to the test.
Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley is bracing for an onslaught from her major primary rival, Steven Grossman.
Grossman needs a media strategy that creates a positive image for himself while driving a wedge between Coakley and the progressive bloc that dominates Democratic primaries.
A third candidate, Don Berwick, has yet to catch fire the way Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren did as first-time candidates — and time is running short.
On the Republican side, party establishment favorite Charlie Baker must deal with a challenge from Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher without tarnishing his carefully crafted moderate image.
What does each candidate need to do between now and Election Day? Here’s a look at where they stand — and where they’re going.
The two-term attorney general’s campaign must be quick, nimble, and aggressive in its response to incoming flak already headed her way. The recent ad by a political action committee supporting rival Steve Grossman — calling her out on a single gun control issue — is the first of what will likely be some tough attacks on her.
Democratic activists, some still traumatized by her disastrous 2010 Senate race, worry about Coakley’s political skills. But the broader primary electorate is a different universe, and her rivals are unlikely to criticize. The Grossman campaign seems to understand that the questions over Coakley’s campaign skills and her ability to win a general election do not resonate with the general Democratic electorate. In fact, attacking her over what some consider a character issue could create even more support for Coakley among women voters, who, more than men, react negatively to attack ads, particularly against one of their own.
Still, the party leadership, major donors, and interest groups — key to her success as the party’s nominee — will be looking to see whether Coakley’s attempt at a political makeover and her search for redemption after the Senate race have succeeded.
With an injection last week of $300,000 in public funding into her campaign account, Coakley, who has lagged behind Grossman’s fund-raising, may have quieted some speculation that she is short on cash. She will have access to a campaign account with more than $700,000 to air ads in the final run-up to the primary. A key goal: using that media blitz to shed the notion she is merely a career prosecutor and to promote a broader, gubernatorial image.
The women’s vote is critical, and the Coakley campaign is working hard for it. Coakley was quick to sponsor a new law aimed at curtailing harassment outside abortion clinics after the state’s buffer zone law was rejected by the Supreme Court. And she protested swiftly and loudly over the same court’s ruling that employers can use religious objections to deny contraception coverage for workers.
Her lead over Grossman and Don Berwick will surely shrink — but it is critical that she not allow any slippage in the polls to suddenly cascade into a collapse in the final days. That’s the way she lost to Republican Scott Brown in the Senate race. In her favor: The sort of pent-up political volatility that created that historic election upset is absent in this race. But even a narrow victory would reopen those political wounds before the general election.
The state treasurer is facing a huge hurdle with no easy way to get over it. He needs a major shake-up in the race. Coakley is cruising, and as each week goes by, it gets harder for Grossman to knock her off her lofty perch. An aggressive attack on a female candidate by a male rival is highly risky. Primary elections are generally driven by the constituency blocs that make up the parties. And in Massachusetts Democratic primaries, women traditionally dominate.
The super PAC created by Grossman’s friends — which by law cannot coordinate with his campaign — is expected to play a major role in the primary’s final days. But its funding levels, which are not immediately public, could be difficult to maintain with polls showing him far behind.
The best news for Grossman lately is that voter surveys show him tightening the gap between himself and Coakley — not much, but enough to give him some encouragement. A new Boston Globe poll shows Coakley with support from 45 percent of Democratic voters and Grossman with 18 percent.
Grossman needs to be airing television ads every week between now and the primary — and whether he can do that may depend on whether he wants to dip into his personal funds. He is not as wealthy as he was in 2002 when, running for governor, he spent $1 million of his own money before dropping out of the crowded primary race.
His strategy of focusing heavily on winning the Democratic convention endorsement in June may have been flawed. He did not get the expected bounce among likely primary voters that endorsed candidates have gotten in the past. Drawing on his long history in state and national politics, he initially raised more money than Coakley but is now spending it down quickly. He just spent $340,000 — a third of his total funds — on an ad campaign that promoted him as a “job creator” and an accomplished businessman. His strategy over the next few weeks will be to try to portray Coakley as a career prosecutor who does not have the gubernatorial credentials to be a strong general election candidate. That will also play along with his argument that she is not consistently progressive enough on issues dearest to the liberal electorate — gun control and immigration, for instance. And he will very likely take aim at her decision to approve the Partners HealthCare acquisitions.
But in the end, what he really needs is for either Coakley to make a major mistake or for his candidacy to catch fire, allowing him to charge into the last week of the primary election at a full gallop. The first scenario, considering her track record, is a possibility. The second is less likely, given Grossman’s subdued campaign style. Time is running short for him to demonstrate the kind of charisma that aligned voters behind Patrick in 2006 or Warren in 2012.
In the weeks leading up to the Democratic Party convention in June, Berwick won the battle for the liberal activists, allowing him to squeeze out two other rivals in what was considered the second tier of Democratic candidates. With some decent fund-raising and hard grass-roots work, he made an impressive showing at the convention, essentially running even with Coakley. But the move to the next level of the campaign — from courting the Democratic activists to the broader party electorate — is proving tough.
Berwick is still polling in the single digits. He is hoping that when voters tune into the race in the final weeks, that will change. He will need a first-class advertising blitz that will be good enough to get across his message: that he is a Beacon Hill outsider running against two insiders and holds several strongly progressive positions, in contrast to Coakley and Grossman. He will highlight his advocacy of a single-payer health system and his opposition to casinos. Having also signed up for the $300,000 in public funds, his media campaign has a chance to make a difference. He also is relying heavily on a ground game, but grass-roots organizations can get a candidate just so far, at best a few percentage points in the final outcome.
Bottom line: Berwick has a big leap to make to get into contention.
Baker is the party establishment’s candidate but also has built important bridges to the conservative right. His choice of former state representative Karyn Polito as his running mate went a long way in wooing that wing of the GOP. He has also convinced many social conservatives that he and they have important common ground on fiscal and small government policies. He has embraced their petition to repeal the Democratic plan to index the gas tax to inflation, a ballot question that is dear to their hearts.
Still, it’s not inconceivable that Mark Fisher, his Tea Party-affiliated opponent, could become a problem.
As he was in his 2010 failed gubernatorial race, Baker is far to the left of the party’s platform on social issues (gay marriage, abortion, employee contraception benefits) and gun control, but he has now also moved to the middle on climate change and immigration and refused to take a no-new taxes pledge. That could create the sort of groundswell that devoured former US House majority leader Eric Cantor in a low-turnout primary in Virginia in June.
Most GOP analysts don’t see that happening, convinced the party’s apparatus will make sure Baker gets the nomination. Even so, his advisers say they plan to use the primary to get Baker’s candidacy onto the electorate’s radar screen. That is expected to include an advertising campaign.
A self-made businessman from Shrewsbury, Fisher came out of nowhere late last year and quickly became a irritant to the GOP establishment. He was dismissed early, but his candidacy, funded almost entirely with own money, has caused terrible headaches for the party leadership, including a nasty legal fight over his right to appear on the primary ballot.
Baker aides say they are not taking Fisher lightly. And for good reason. Staunch social conservatives and even gun owners could give Fisher some much needed help. He is an outspoken opponent of immigration reform and has denounced Governor Deval Patrick’s willingness to accept some of the Central American children who have crossed illegally into the country. While Baker decried the Supreme Court ruling on buffer zones around abortion clinics and offered a plan to help women burdened by a ruling allowing employers to refuse to contraception coverage, Fisher enthusiastically embraced both decisions. Baker has backed the recent tightening of the state’s gun laws; Fisher has spoken strongly against the new law.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.