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Did Ellen Malcolm (Accidentally) Help Elect Scott Brown?

4 years ago
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Ellen Story is a Massachusetts Democrat, a state representative and an independent thinker. Breaking with her state's female political leaders, she did not back Martha Coakley in the Senate primary late last year. "People were stunned that I wasn't supporting her, stunned and irritated," Story told me.

Though she would have loved to back a woman, the Amherst legislator said, she chose Rep. Mike Capuano because of her own mood and the mood she sensed among Massachusetts voters. "I wanted a senator who would be feisty and scrappy. Who'd stand for things and raise hell about things," she said. "He just lets it all hang out. When he's mad, you know he's mad. When somebody says something stupid to him he tells them. He stands for things and he's very open and brash about them."

The careful, cautious Coakley easily won the December primary against Capuano and two other men. As we all know, she then lost the special election to succeed Ted Kennedy. The larger losses for Democrats include their Senate supermajority, their confidence and possibly even their will to pass health reform.

Granted, there were lots of contributing factors, which I've written about here and here. Yet Coakley's astonishing collapse left me wondering if women, spearheaded by fundraising juggernaut EMILY's List, overlooked her weaknesses because they were so anxious to elect a woman. Should EMILY's List and its longtime president, Ellen Malcolm, have looked deeper at Coakley before activating the group's donor network for her? Was this an avoidable debacle? Is EMILY's List counterproductive? In the age of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, is it still needed?

The whole premise of EMILY's List is embedded in its acronym and slogan: Early Money Is Like Yeast: It Makes the Dough Rise. To qualify for help, candidates have to be Democratic, female, supporters of abortion rights, and judged to be capable of winning. It's that viability factor that raised questions in my mind, leading me on a hunt to figure out exactly what was known about Coakley's campaign skills before she captured the early money that helped her dominate a primary race against three men.

Coakley was elected attorney general in 2006. It was her first run for statewide office and she did not have much of a race. Then the Middlesex County district attorney, she ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and did not have a Republican opponent for some months. "GOP struggles to fill out the ticket," read a March 2006 headline in the Boston Globe. Eventually the party recruited Lawrence Frisoli, described as "a Cambridge lawyer and one-term city councilor." Coakley refused to debate him and won 69 percent of the vote.

So, no real test of campaign skills in that race. What Coakley did do, though, was demonstrate the power of the state's female political establishment. As early as August 2005, the Boston Globe wrote that she had discouraged challengers by lining up so much support and money from women.

Four years later, a number of heavyweights in the Massachusetts House delegation declined to try for the Senate seat. Washington politics was part of the reason. Kay Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College, said they were more interested in 2004 -- when Sen. John Kerry had a good chance at the presidency -- because "we had a state full of Democratic congressmen who had spent a decade in the minority." But by 2009 they were running committees and subcommittees on Capitol Hill, and passing bills that a Democratic president would sign.

Capuano was the only one who plunged in. His assets included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's endorsement, $1.1 million in the bank as of Oct. 1, and a strong Boston accent that gave him potential Joe Six-Pack appeal despite his Dartmouth degree. ("He would like nothing better than to be shaking hands in the cold in Fenway Park," said Story, an allusion to one of Coakley's huge gaffes in the final days of the campaign). The two other primary contenders also showed promise. Political outsider Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year, raised $1 million in his first week as a candidate and ultimately was endorsed by the Globe. Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca had raised more than $200,000 by Oct. 1 and had unlimited personal resources to finance a campaign. Coakley, bolstered by EMILY's List and other women's groups, raised an impressive $2 million in her first month as a candidate.

Coakley did not shine in the first primary debate, according to blog and newspaper accounts at the time. Story said she seemed competent in debates but "she didn't smile. She seemed very serious. She wore a dark navy blue. Dark brown. Black. She had a necklace on but it was not shiny. It was kind of white. It blended in with her skin. You couldn't really see it." Story finally pressed Coakley's aides to "please let her look like a woman." In her final debate, Coakley wore a powder-blue blazer and gold jewelry. Clearly by then the frontrunner, the nomination within reach, she loosened up and even made some jokes. But the omens were there: She did better when the pressure was off than when it was on.

It would have been difficult to predict that trajectory at the start of the primary campaign last September. Malcolm says Coakley had a good track record as attorney general and many other attributes: she was attractive, she was smart, she understood the issues, she had a following, and "women were very excited" about her candidacy. One unanticipated complication was her 19-point lead in an internal campaign poll circulated just before the holidays. "Donors in Massachusetts and across the country said 'This is Massachusetts, you're fine. I'm not going to write you a check. I'm going to my holiday party,'" Malcolm told me. She said EMILY's List eventually came through with about $600,000 in general election funds for Coakley. She declined to say how much the group raised for Coakley in the primary.

Coakley backers say limited resources and a hostile political environment hurt her. Malcolm concedes those were not Coakley's only problems. "Do I think she's the best candidate that ever lived? No," she said of Coakley. But she said few politicians combine the talents of an Ann Richards with the campaign organization of a Barack Obama. "This isn't the business of finding the best people on earth," she told me.

EMILY's List tries to be hard-headed and strategic in its decisions, endorsing and raising money for women only after a rigorous assessment of their viability as candidates. It is staying out of the Ohio Senate primary, for instance, having decided that Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner does not have what it takes to defeat lieutenant governor and party favorite Lee Fisher. "If our judgment is that a person isn't doing what needs to be done to win, we stay out of it. That's the case in Ohio. That was not the case with Martha Coakley at all," Malcolm said.

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, knows from personal experience that EMILY's List sets a high bar. She challenged anti-abortion Rep. Jim Langevin in a 2006 Democratic primary in Rhode Island and did not win the group's backing, even though she supports abortion-rights and had raised several hundred thousand dollars on her own. "EMILY's List looked at that race and said 'we have limited resources, we're not taking on an incumbent,'" Lawless said. "They have been very, very strategic in who they've determined is endorsement-worthy. That was too uphill a battle."

Massachusetts was a tantalizing prospect because the state has been especially hard for women to get a political foothold as elected officials. In its latest report, the Institute for Women's Policy Research gave the state a C+ in women's participation in political life. "Let us say that the male public officials of Massachusetts have never fallen over themselves to say, 'make way for the female candidate,'" Schlozman told me.

The only female governor of Massachusetts was Jane Swift, who was selected to be on a ticket as lieutenant governor, later rose to acting governor, and did not stand for election. There has never been a female U.S. senator from Massachusetts or a governor elected in her own right. Rep. Niki Tsongas got to the House via a special election in 2007; she's the first woman in the congressional delegation since 1983.

Coakley is only the second woman elected to statewide office entirely on her own, after former treasurer Shannon O'Brien, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers. The president of the state Senate is Therese Murray, but only 26 percent of the Massachusetts Legislature is female. Story says there have been only 165 women in the legislature since it began meeting in 1630. Yes, we are talking nearly 400 years.

The national numbers for women are even worse, notwithstanding Nancy Pelosi's position as Speaker of the House. Women comprise only 17 percent of the House and Senate. As of last year, only six of 50 governors were women. Only 10 cities in the top 100 had female mayors. Only 24 percent of state legislators were women.

It's clear we still need groups in both parties to focus on electing women. Yet those numbers, bad as they are, are a lot better than they were in 1985, when EMILY's List was founded. Since then it has helped elect 80 female House members, 15 senators, nine governors, and hundreds of state and local officials.

The group's fundraising clout is now so great that it can shape some races from the get-go. "They have an ability unlike any other organization to steer money to the candidate. So that certainly has the potential to suppress other candidates' emergence," says Lawless. That gives EMILY's List a special responsibility to make sure, as one concerned Democratic strategist said to me, that "they don't just prop up someone who really isn't a strong enough candidate."

Is that what happened with Coakley?

She was well known as a guarded, serious-minded public servant and that worked fine in her first run for state office. Should anyone have known it would not work against state senator Scott Brown, who projected energy and a racy charisma? Maybe. "At the federal level, who's the sexier candidate becomes a little bit more relevant" than at the state level, as Lawless put it. Story says Coakley also lacked a statewide organization. She hadn't needed that, either, in that first race. But the other Democrats in the Senate race didn't have organizations like that either -- two of them weren't even politicians.

EMILY's List says it is conducting "an extensive analysis" into what happened in Massachusetts, focusing on why independents turned away from Coakley. I hope they also look closely at their candidate evaluation process and, at least in critical races, raise the bar even higher as a result of this dire outcome.

That said, I don't think we can blame EMILY's List for this failure. Another candidate might have been better, especially given the state's mood, but there was no reason to doubt that Coakley could win. Story says Massachusetts Democrats certainly had no doubts about her future -- to the point where there was "all this scrambling" at the Capitol over who had power to appoint an acting attorney general, who wanted to run for the job, who should run to succeed secretary of state William Francis Galvin if he ran for attorney general, and on and on. "Everybody thought she could win," Story said of Coakley. "It was set in stone."

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