Coakley’s tough battle in Massachusetts special election

Martha Coakley has the statewide profile, the political know-how, and the early edge needed to win a special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. But is she the right gender?

By most accounts, the Massachusetts attorney general should be and is the frontrunner in the special election, at least for now, and as the lone female candidate in a field of male congressmen, she should have a built-in advantage with half the electorate.


But this is Massachusetts, and the bluest state in the union has a not-so-Democratic reputation for turning away female candidates.
Women have been elected to just four statewide offices, none of which have been governor or Senate. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) in 2007 became just the fourth woman elected to Congress in state history, and the first in a quarter-century.
That history was at the front of Tsongas’s mind when The Hill asked her Thursday whom she might support in the special election.
“I am waiting to see how the field develops, but a woman can't win if a woman doesn't run,” Tsongas said. “And I think Martha Coakley is a very qualified candidate."
Coakley is likely to run against at least a couple of Tsongas’s colleagues, Reps. Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano, and possibly against Rep. John Tierney. But Tsongas seemed to suggest she might back Coakley, mentioning her name unprompted.
Tsongas’s win aside, the state has been particularly unkind to female politicians in recent years. State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien (D) and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) have lost the last two races for governor, and when O’Brien ran in 2002, the acting female governor, Jane Swift (R), was shoved aside by her party in favor of Mitt Romney (R).
Before that, former state Sen. Patricia McGovern and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy lost Democratic primaries for governor in 1998 and 1990, respectively.
One Democratic consultant not aligned with any of the special election candidates said the glass ceiling is even tougher now because of the nature of low-turnout special elections and the timing of it, with a cold December primary and a colder January general election.
“She has to figure out not just how to get women votes but how to get senior women to vote for her and break a pattern where older women in Massachusetts don’t like women candidates,” the consultant said.
Coakley, who in 2006 was elected the state’s first female attorney general, is proudly running with the women’s mantle and has garnered the support of EMILY’s List and other women’s groups.
Coakley’s election would be a “historic” achievement for Massachusetts women, said Sheila Capone-Wulsin, executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus.
Capone-Wulsin said women’s struggles in the state’s politics have had more to do with the confluence of circumstances than any gender biases in the electorate.
“Women in Massachusetts will not necessarily support a candidate because she is a woman; I think they’ll support a woman candidate because they’re women and they relate to that person,” Capone-Wulsin said. “If they’re a good candidate, then they’ll get the support of the women.”
But even if Coakley can’t count on the women’s vote, she might not need it in a Democratic primary field where a plurality is expected to be sufficient.
Asked whether Coakley’s gender could actually benefit her in a primary field filled with men, Capone-Wulsin demurred.
“I don’t know that it works that way; I think Massachusetts is going to elect the best candidate,” she said. “I just think that in this case it happens to be Martha Coakley.”
-- Michael M. Gleeson contributed to this article