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Shirley Leung

Coakley’s challenge: reversing the attorney general curse

Other Massachusetts attorneys general who have lost in their bids for the corner office: Francis X. Bellotti (left), Tom Reilly (middle), and Scott Harshbarger. George Rizer/Globe staff

Can Martha Coakley reverse the attorney general curse?

The two-term AG claimed a primary victory on Tuesday, but she and her predecessors have been there before only to choke in the final.

Plenty of AGs in other states have been able to catapult themselves to higher office. Naked ambitions have earned their trade group the nickname the National Association of Aspiring Governors. The list of illustrious alums is ever growing, including Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut senator), Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire senator), Andrew Cuomo (New York governor), and Bill Clinton (Arkansas governor, US president).

But not in the Commonwealth, where voters have decided that lawyers can run Beacon Hill (Mike Dukakis, Bill Weld, Deval Patrick), but perfectly good AGs — well, you have to go back to the 1950s to find one who became governor. (That fellow, by the way, was Paul Dever, who was out of office at the time he won the governorship. To find a sitting AG who became governor requires a trip back to the 19th century.)

So is there a jinx? To find out, I went straight to the biggest loser of them all: Frank Bellotti. For the record, the three-term Massachusetts AG doesn’t believe the office is under a hex. If that’s the case, he pointed out, state treasurers are just as doomed — Joe Malone, Shannon O’Brien, Tim Cahill, Steve Grossman.

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But when asked to tick off his own failed campaigns — including three governor’s races — the Democrat realized I might be onto something.

“I epitomize the curse,” acknowledged Bellotti, now 91 and still tan, as he sat in his Quincy office at Arbella Insurance, which he cofounded after leaving public office.

But in every loss, Bellotti said there was always a reason — and it wasn’t because he was AG.

For instance, in his last gubernatorial run in 1990, he blew a double-digit lead in the Democratic primary, swept out in an anti-incumbent wave. The polls were off because no one wanted to admit pulling the lever for the acrimonious John Silber, the Boston University president who went on to lose to Weld in the general election.

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“I made one very serious mistake,” said Bellotti of that race. “I didn’t trust my instincts.”

For Scott Harshbarger, who lost in a 1998 squeaker to Republican Paul Cellucci, being AG gave him enormous name recognition, but it was hard making the transition from prosecutor to politician.

Put it another way, there aren’t many opportunities for AGs to mug for the camera.

“It’s very hard to smile — and be a nice warm person — when you’re telling someone at a press conference we have just cracked down on the biggest fraud,” said Harshbarger, now senior counsel at law firm Proskauer.

If the two-term former AG had to do it all over again, he would have let voters see a different side of him. The Democrat blames himself for not laughing and smiling more during the campaign.

That’s Coakley’s challenge, and her lack of personality led to an embarrassing upset in the 2010 US Senate loss to Scott Brown. This time, her lone TV ad that ran before the gubernatorial primary focused on her fight for families and jobs, with no mention of her own day job.

“Martha has made a serious effort,” said Harshbarger. “She has learned to be a candidate.”

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Tom Reilly doesn’t have any regrets when it comes to losing to Deval Patrick in 2006. Reilly, like both Harshbarger and Coakley, enjoyed being the anointed one. But then Patrick, a charismatic newcomer, burst onto the scene to win the state Democratic convention.

“In my case, you have to give credit where credit is due,” said Reilly, a former AG now at law firm Manion Gaynor & Manning. “Deval Patrick in both the primary and general ran an excellent campaign that captured the mood of the voters at that time.”

The message: hope and change. And as Reilly points out, it has yet to lose. It carried Patrick to two stints as governor and even President Obama to two terms in the White House.

That just leaves us with Coakley. Does she believe she’s cursed? Of course she doesn’t, even playfully scoffing at the very question.

“You’re assuming there is one, which I don’t agree with,” she told me sitting on a bench in Arlington after a campaign stop earlier this week. She went on to explain how there are just too many good candidates in our state.

“All races in Massachusetts, particularly for governor, are very competitive,” she said.

Curse or no curse, Coakley should avoid black cats or walking under ladders this political season. History hasn’t been on her side.

Shirley Leung can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.