As they face the growing possibility that Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley will lose the race to fill the seat formerly held by Sen. Ted Kennedy, some Democrats are settling on a new strategy to blame the defeat not only on Coakley's inept campaign but also on her personality and strained relations with both the Kennedy family and President Obama. At the same time, Democrats are working to position themselves to push Coakley aside and focus on defeating a Sen. Scott Brown, should the Republican run for a full six-year term in 2012.
"Everybody is scrambling and freaking out," says one Democratic strategist of the mood among Democrats now. Coakley's run has taught the once-triumphant party that "a lackluster, uninspiring campaign is not going to get it done, even in the bluest states." But with feelings running deep, some Democrats are blaming Coakley in a much more personal way.
"She's kind of aloof," the Democrat says. "There are people who will vote for her who don't really have a sense that they like or trust her. The Kennedys aren't really fond of her. She basically announced her campaign the day Ted died, and didn't give Vicki the opportunity to think about [running to replace her husband]. From the Kennedy side of the ledger, there's no great love for Coakley. They look at her as kind of a predatory politician."
Coakley made no secret of her desire to run for Kennedy's seat well before Kennedy died in August of last year. Kennedy nephew Stephen E. Smith later told the Boston Herald, "She set up a committee six months before my uncle died. There were people on the corner with a huge 'Coakley for Senate' sign two days after his funeral." Coakley formally announced her candidacy a week after Kennedy's death. One of Coakley's main rivals for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Michael Capuano, told the Herald, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't step over someone's grave."
As far as Obama is concerned, Coakley was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Coakley, a Massachusetts superdelegate, announced her support for Clinton in May 2008, after it was clear that Clinton had little or no chance to win the nomination -- and long after Sen. Kennedy and prominent Kennedy family members backed Obama. Even at the Democratic convention, as Obama's forces tried to unify the party behind his candidacy, Coakley cast her vote for Clinton. Only later did she switch her support, reluctantly, to Obama.
If Coakley loses, the resentments those actions created will come to the fore in a wave of recriminations and blame-placing. "There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing after the fact," says the strategist. And at least among Democrats, all the fingers will point at Coakley; besides allowing Democrats to vent at Coakley, blaming her will have the effect of insulating President Obama from criticism that the election was a referendum on his policies, particularly the Democrats' unpopular national health care plan.
After the anger subsides, the party will move on the work of trying to defeat Brown in 2012. Tuesday's special election is only to fill the remainder of Sen. Kennedy's term, which ends in 2012, meaning there will be a new election then to fill the next six-year Senate term. Brown, should he win Tuesday, would presumably run for re-election.
Democrats strongly believe that if Coakley loses, it will be because of a special set of circumstances -- a weak candidate and a particularly bad political environment -- that will not be present in 2012. When the next elections comes around, Democrats say, the party's numerical and institutional strength in Massachusetts will return and Brown will be defeated.
It's a scenario that is not altogether bad for some Democrats. After all, if Coakley wins on Tuesday, she would likely be re-elected, perhaps more than once. If, on the other hand, Brown wins and then loses in 2012, Democrats have the chance to find a more congenial candidate. The strategist spoke approvingly when he quoted a fellow Democrat who said, "'I'd rather have Scott Brown for two years than Martha Coakley for the rest of my life."