There’s always been a predetermined quality to Martha Coakley’s campaign for Massachusetts governor—with pundits and politicos just waiting for her to fall on her face so that they can flash the “choke” sign.
Having so badly blown her run for the U.S. Senate four years ago against Scott Brown—when she infamously took a vacation during the heat of the campaign and dismissed the legendary Red Sox pitcher (and Brown backer) Curt Schilling as a “Yankee fan”—Coakley’s missteps this time around, even the minor ones, are receiving a disproportionate amount of attention. When she mistakenly said that Massachusetts’s gas tax was 10 cents per gallon (it’s actually 24 cents) back in May, Worcester.com ran an article headlined “Coakley’s Latest Gaffe Joins Massachusetts Political History” and equated her gas-tax flub to such epic bumbles as John Kerry’s windsurfing and Michael Dukakis’s furloughing of Willie Horton. The fact that her state-issued car—which Coakley enjoys as Massachusetts’s attorney general—was twice spotted parked in a tow zone warranted a whole article in the Globe.
In the past week, Coakley’s critics have been given so much fodder that they’ve gone into full Reggie Miller mode. First, the Globe released a poll that showed Coakley trailing her Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, by 9 points. Then, a few days after that, the Globe’s editorial board endorsed Baker—the first time the paper has backed a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 20 years. As Politico Magazine taunted in its recent Coakley profile, “You could call her the Bill Buckner of politics, if she even knew who the Red Sox were.” The headline on that Politico piece? “Martha Chokeley,” of course.
But is Coakley really choking against Baker? The attorney general, to be sure, will never be confused for a political dynamo. She’s a product of a sclerotic Massachusetts Democratic Party establishment that specializes in producing hacks (and oftentimes felonious ones at that). In fact, the only Democrat to be elected governor in Massachusetts in the last 24 years is Deval Patrick, who won in large part because he wasn’t part of that Democratic establishment.
Still, Coakley is a much better candidate than she was four years ago. For one thing, she’s actually campaigning this time. She’s also boned up on the ridiculous, but nonetheless important, local sports trivia. (Can you name the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots? Coakley did.) Her ads, like this one about her brother who committed suicide, are among the better ones this cycle. There’s a reason she beat two strong candidates—Massachusetts Treasurer Steve Grossman and health care expert Don Berwick—in the Democratic Primary. She outperformed them.
Coakley’s not out-performing Baker, but that’s because Baker is running one of the better campaigns of 2014. A former state budget wonk who went on to make a mint as a health insurance executive, Baker ran for governor in 2010 as a buttoned-up businessman—basically taking a page from Mitt Romney’s old Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign playbook, which, by then, was severely outdated: Baker lost to Patrick by six points. This time around, Baker is running less as a businessman and more as a “bro”: the suits and ties have been replaced by open-collar shirts and jeans. Meanwhile, his campaign ads feature his gay brother. In a state that loves a certain kind of male candidate—think Bill Weld and Scott Brown—but also appreciates same-sex love, Baker has found a winning strategy.
Making things even more difficult for Coakley is the fact that, like in 2010, when she was the first of many Democrats to be swept away by the Tea Party wave, she’s again running in an inhospitable political environment for Democrats. Although the conventional wisdom in Massachusetts is that a Coakley defeat would tarnish Deval Patrick’s legacy, CommonWealth’s Michael Jonas argues that “it is Patrick and his problem-plagued second term in office, as much as her own shortcomings as a candidate, that could ultimately be Coakley's undoing.” As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump recently put it, “Coakley has a remarkable knack for running for high office right when the weather turns nasty.”
Finally, there’s the nasty matter of sexism. Historically, Massachusetts doesn’t like female candidates. And, for all the plaudits showered on the Commonwealth’s voters for overcoming their seeming misogyny by sending Elizabeth Warren to the Senate two years ago, the fact is that Warren is a political superstar. We’ll know Massachusetts has reached true gender equality when its female hacks stand as good a chance as its male ones.
Yet, despite all the “Chokeley” talk, Coakley does still have a chance to win—and become the first elected female governor in the history of the Commonwealth. (Jane Swift, who was elected as lieutenant governor, merely served as “acting governor” for two years after Paul Cellucci resigned.) A new poll from The New York Times has her leading Baker by 2 points as the two head into their final debate on Tuesday night. But even if Coakley loses, likening her to Bill Buckner, the first baseman whose fielding error cost the Sox the 1986 World Series, seems inapt. The better comparison is Pedro Martinez. In 2004, he pitched a masterpiece for the Red Sox in a playoff game against the Yankees, only to lose when he didn’t get any run support. After the game, Martinez, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, was asked how he felt about all the razzing he took from the fans in Yankee Stadium. “It actually made me feel really, really good," he replied. “I actually realized that I felt like somebody important, because I caught the attention of 60,000, plus you guys, plus the whole world, watching a guy that is, you reverse the time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus.”
There are no mango trees in Western Massachusetts where Coakley grew up, but she’s had a distinguished career—a two-term attorney general and a two-time Democratic nominee for a major office. If she doesn’t win next Tuesday, she should be remembered for the things she did achieve, not for being a choker.