Many Democrats' stomachs still churn when they think back to January 2010. After months of coasting in the race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, that was when the Democrats' complacent nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, suddenly looked vulnerable against Republican state Sen. Scott Brown, a Tea Party favorite who billed himself as the man who could end the Democratic Party's 60-seat Senate supermajority.
First, a poll from the Republican-leaning Rasmussen firm showed Coakley with just a single-digit lead, but it was easy for Democrats to write that result off, considering the source. Then came the real shocker: the respected Public Policy Polling survey found Brown leading Coakley 48 to 47 percent. Less than two weeks later, Brown jolted the political scene when he defeated Coakley by nearly five points.
For Democrats, losing Kennedy, the Senate's liberal lion, had been devastating enough. But losing his Senate seat -- and with it, it briefly seemed, any chance to pass health care reform, the cause of the late senator's life? That made Coakley's loss doubly depressing.
While Coakley's defeat rendered her a Democratic pariah, she never shed her ambitions for higher office. And after winning re-election as attorney general later in 2010 and carving out a leadership role on issues like mortgage relief, Coakley achieved such a measure of political redemption that when she announced her intention last year to seek Massachusetts' governorship, she catapulted to the front of the Democratic field and boasted a double-digit lead over likely Republican opponent Charlie Baker, the unsuccessful GOP nominee against Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010.
Coakley vowed not to repeat the mistakes that doomed her candidacy in 2010. “I’ve acknowledged that we made some mistakes on that campaign trail, and I’ve learned from that,” she said, reassuring Democrats that her loss to Brown had taught her the importance of working tirelessly for every vote and taking nothing for granted.
Fast forward to late October 2014, however, and Coakley could be on the cusp of another loss. The contest between Baker and Coakley has been tight since Labor Day, but the momentum clearly favors the Republican now. A Boston Globe poll released last night gives Baker his biggest lead yet, with the millionaire former health care CEO besting Coakley 45 percent to 36 percent. RealClearPolitics' polling average finds Baker with an average lead of 4.5 points -- the near-equivalent of the margin by which Brown defeated Coakley in 2010.
Given Massachusetts' liberal leanings, a Baker victory is by no means assured, but a 2010 redux now looks likelier than ever before. Here are five factors that help explain this turn of events.
1. Democrats aren't exactly enamored of Coakley.
With memories of Coakley's humiliating 2010 defeat still fresh, Coakley has struggled to win over skeptics in her own party. At the Massachusetts Democratic Party's June convention, Treasurer Steve Grossman actually defeated Coakley for the party's nod, although Coakley maintained a solid lead in polling for the September primary. But Grossman ran a dogged and spirited campaign, capitalizing on party unease with their former Senate nominee. On September 9, Coakley's margin of victory over the underfunded Grossman was an embarrassingly small six percentage points. With health care policy wonk Donald Berwick also running in the primary, 58 percent of Massachusetts Democrats voted for someone other than Coakley to be the party's nominee.
The Boston Globe's latest poll shows Coakley is winning just 74 percent of Democratic voters, while 13 percent are prepared to cross party lines and vote for Baker.
2. Baker is the kind of Republican who wins in Massachusetts.
Republicans don't get elected to office in Massachusetts by running as mini-Ted Cruzes. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, you'll remember, pitched himself as a "progressive" Republican who was pro-choice on abortion and a staunch supporter of gay rights. Only after Romney's focus turned toward the national stage did his public positions veer sharply to the right. Despite the state's blue hue, Massachusetts has a long history of moderate Republicanism, embodied by former Gov. William Weld; former U.S. Senators Edward Brooke, Leverett Saltonstall, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.; and former U.S. Attorney General Eliot Richardson. Baker is running in that tradition, articulating moderate positions on social issues while selling himself as a competent fiscal manager.
3. Independents are breaking for Baker -- big time.
No Republican can win statewide office in the commonwealth without substantial support among independents, and Baker is doing just fine on that score. According to the Boston Globe's poll, independents currently favor Baker by nearly three to one. Fifty seven percent of unaffiliated voters back the Republican, while only 20 percent support Coakley. As the Globe notes, independents were crucial in outgoing Gov. Patrick's victories in 2006 and 2010, and their lopsided support for Baker marks an ominous sign for Coakley.
4. Coakley is hurting for cash.
Not surprisingly for a wealthy former business executive, Baker has proven a prodigious fundraiser, and his financial advantage over Coakley has kept the race competitive. What's really hurting Coakley is the size of that advantage. At the end of September, Coakley's campaign had only $266,000 in cash on hand, compared with $1.5 million for Baker's campaign. Given the state's vaunted Democratic turnout machine, that massive financial lead makes Baker a formidable challenger.
Underscoring Coakley's fraught relations with fellow Democrats, the Globe reported this month that her camp had asked members of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation to help the campaign close the fundraising gap -- and few members were willing to pay up. If Coakley loses, that dearth of support will figure prominently in the inevitable blame game.
In other midterms news:
- Sarah Palin just endorsed the Democratic-backed ticket for governor and lieutenant governor of Alaska. The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee and half-term governor is backing the ticket of independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott, the Hill reports, snubbing Gov. Sean Parnell, her former lieutenant governor. Parnell and Palin have clashed over an oil and gas industry tax that Palin signed as governor and Parnell has opposed. Mallott was originally the Democrats' nominee against Parnell, but he agreed to drop his candidacy and serve as Walker's running mate in order to boost chances of ousting the governor. The gambit may work; most polls show the Walker-Mallott ticket leading Parnell.
- A new poll from CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation brings some good news for Democrats in Georgia. In the state's Senate race, Democrat Michelle Nunn edges David Perdue 47 to 44 percent, while Democrat Jason Carter leads Republican incumbent Nathan Deal 48 to 46 percent in the governor's race. Both races are headed to runoffs, though, if no candidate wins an outright majority on Election Day.
- Salon has argued that public polls may be overestimating GOP strength in Colorado's Senate race between Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Cory Gardner, and NBC's Mark Murray explores that same possibility in a new post this morning. Murray points to the fact that Colorado, for the first time, has mailed ballots to all registered voters, which could lead to much higher than expected turnout. That's a scenario Udall needs to play out. RealClearPolitics' polling average gives Gardner a four point lead in the race.