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November 19, 2014

There is much to admire in the skill and savvy of David Axelrod.  But on the issue of Martha Coakley and the 2014 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, the Axe misses the mark.

From last week’s Wall Street Journal Washington Wire:

“Massachusetts is a very progressive state. I don’t think people voted against Martha Coakley because they disagreed with the direction of the state,” Mr. Axelrod said at The Wall Street Journal’s Capital Journal breakfast.“She’s a demonstrably bad candidate and she’s proven it in two elections.”

This reminds me a bit of the time Luke Russert thought he made a great claim on the Governor’s race by tweeting:

Russert clearly preferred to dial it in but Axelrod knows better.  The reality of the 2014 race and the Commonwealth’s politics are not quite as clear as he suggests.  

First, Massachusetts is a very Democratic state.  That doesn’t always translate easily into being a “very progressive state.”  There’s a difference. My colleague Jerold Duquette noted at a panel discussion this weekend that Chamber of Commerce types are quite happy to do business with the Democratic party here. 

But there is one place where Democrats don't dominate: the Corner Office. Republicans have won fully half of the gubernatorial elections since 1966 and since 1990 a Democratic gubernatorial nominee has only won more that 50% of the popular vote once out of 7 elections.  

Given the history of Republican success at winning the Corner Office and the reality that 2014 was an incredibly excellent year for the GOP, it is rather stunning that Martha Coakley lost by only 40,000 votes when most polls had her losing by quite a bit more.

Second, he’s right that voters didn’t register sharp disagreement with the direction of the Commonwealth.  That is precisely why Charlie Baker chose not to draw sharp contrasts with the incumbent Governor during the race.  Baker didn’t present himself as a threat to the direction of the state.  He ran to better manage the state.   And when the political terrain is management and personality, a GOP candidate can, and often does, win the Corner Office. 

Third, Martha Coakley’s mistakes have been largely magnified while her successes as a candidate and Attorney General tend to be minimized.  Such is the fate for those who lose elections.  And she was not a perfect candidate (few are) and made plenty of mistakes in her run for Governor, though she ran a stronger and harder campaign this year than she did in 2010.  But she was not nearly as flawed a candidate as portrayed.  Indeed, the national coverage of the race was abysmal, demonstrably so.  Once a narrative is set in place, it is awfully hard to dislodge.  It's just plain easier to claim the Attorney General chokes.

Candidates lose and sometimes good candidates lose big.  I cannot imagine that the team that successfully helped elect Charlie Baker believes that Martha Coakley was demonstrably bad.  Because she wasn’t and on election night she gave the Baker team quite a scare with the closest Governor's race since 1964.

I can imagine that it is easier for many in the Democratic party to believe that losing the Corner Office was simply due to a terribly flawed candidate.  It's similar to the notion that Coakley alone--not the Democratic party, not the national context--lost the 2010 special Senate election.  

But that would not be demonstrably accurate.  It's all just a bit more complicated than the prevailing wisdom from DC or Chicago.  

Martha Coakley, David Axelrod, 2014 Massachusetts Governor's Race

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