This time, no one could say Martha Coakley gave up the fight.
In fact, she didn’t formally concede the governor’s race to Republican Charlie Baker until Wednesday morning.
Forgive her if she hung on a little too long. Think how it must feel to come so close to political redemption only to have it snatched away. Think about watching the returns narrow to winnable, at least for a moment, after pundits gleefully predicted her final “choke.” Think about a rival so confident that he was scheduling a transition meeting shortly after polls opened on Tuesday.
In the end, Coakley lost to Baker by just under 40,000 votes. To his credit, Baker graciously let his opponent wait until all the votes were counted. While Coakley couldn’t pull off the big political miracle, coming that close was a miracle in itself, given all she overcame.
Her 2010 Senate loss to Scott Brown turned her into a national joke. No matter how many hands she shook, the press wouldn’t let her forget a line she spoke four years ago when she was asked whether she was campaigning hard enough. “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” she replied, earning eternal scorn for what was very likely an intended quip.
While she benefited from Governor Deval Patrick’s passionate presence on the campaign trail, the baggage of various Patrick administration management scandals also weighed her down. Patrick didn’t help her cause with a tone-deaf move to transfer 500 nonunion managers to the state public employee union. It meant raises and job protection for those workers, and two weeks before Election Day, it bolstered Baker’s argument against one-party rule.
The so-called attorney general’s curse also hung over Coakley. She is now the fourth Massachusetts AG since 1990 to fail to make the leap to chief executive. Questions she faced at the end of the campaign concerning allegations brought to her attention about former House Speaker Sal DiMasi illustrate the problem for prosecutors who run for higher office. She was forced to explain why federal prosecutors indicted him on political corruption charges and she did not.
As AG, she also defended the state against a suit brought be a child welfare reform advocacy group. An attack ad paid for by the Republican Governors Association highlighted that to challenge her commitment to children. Overall, the association, headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, poured $12 million into attack ads aimed at Coakley.
She was outspent, 10 to 1, she said. Meanwhile, the local business community helped Baker raise money. Democrats like Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk abandoned her and endorsed Baker. Former AG Tom Reilly publicly griped about Coakley’s criticism of Baker’s decision to outsource jobs as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare.
Despite all that, “we almost won,” said Coakley, when she finally faced the media Wednesday morning. That she came so close to ruining Baker’s victory party is a testament to her own resilience. But it also points to an underlying weakness of her campaign.
The people whose hands she shook got a glimpse of the real Coakley. But a campaign strategy aimed at protecting her from unwanted scrutiny also stopped a wider audience from seeing beyond the mythology of 2010 to the improved candidate of 2014. That was critical, since she lacked the funding to wage an effective advertising campaign.
The personality that started to break through in debates was evident on Wednesday, during Coakley’s concession remarks and a subsequent Q&A. That’s when she poignantly told young women that is important “that you lean in” and, win or lose, not to give up.
For every woman who didn’t get the job she wanted, or ran a race and lost, Coakley said, “I say go back at it. Throw your hat back in the ring.”
To anyone who is truly paying attention, those aren’t the words of a quitter.