Martha Coakley won the Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday night, but she prevailed in a way that will raise new doubts rather than put old ones to rest.
Having led her Democratic rivals by 20 points or more in poll after poll, Coakley held a mid-single-digit lead over Treasurer Steve Grossman, her closest rival.
That should send a frisson of unease up the collective Democratic spine, a worry that it’s starting to look a lot like 2010, when Coakley won the Democratic Senate primary only to lose a winnable race to Republican Scott Brown. Her showing fairly shouts that the strategy that worked for the Democratic primary will be a far dicier proposition in the general election.
Coakley ran a vague values campaign, talking a good deal about what she had done as attorney general, but far less about what she would do as governor. Light on specifics and hyper-cautious in her comments, the front-runner largely confined herself to broad themes and a general discussion of areas where she hoped to expand state services. Queried on specifics issues, her predictable answer was that she would “look at” or “consider” this matter or that.
That was effective in this sense: It limited the opportunities for Grossman, who struggled to find an issue difference that cleaved and to develop an effective attack against her. Grossman’s effort to get to Coakley’s left was further complicated by Don Berwick, whose stands against gambling and for single-payer health care appealed to the liberal true believers.
And so, with strong support from women, and with Grossman struggling for a clear, clean opening, Coakley pulled it out.
But she pursues a similar general election strategy only at her very real peril.
Republican nominee Charlie Baker is ready to drive a much more specific campaign. Waged effectively, that will highlight meaningful differences between the two.
Coakley can’t respond with a front-runner’s campaign based on vague professions and platitudes. That’s almost always a mistake, and in this case it carries this added risk: It would play into the narrative of a candidate who hasn’t learned the lessons of her own past, and thus is about to repeat them.