A Massachusetts Snoozer

The last time there was an open Senate seat in Massachusetts, a pair of young Democrats, each with big dreams, waged a fateful nip-and-tuck fight that made a star of the winner, John Kerry, and a has-been of the loser, Jim Shannon.

Those of us who hoped for similar drama in the race to succeed Ted Kennedy have been sorely disappointed.

The Democratic primary that, in the deeply blue Bay State, will effectively double as a general election is now less than a month away. But suspense is nowhere to be found. Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, has been running well in front of the pack since the race started, and there’s really no reason to think anything will change before the ballots are cast on December 8.

A Suffolk University poll released earlier this week gave Coakley 44 percent of the vote – 27 points ahead of Steven Pagliuca, the self-funding Boston Celtics co-owner (whose election would bring to two the number of NBA team owners in the Senate – Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl, who own the Bucks, is the other). Pags, as he likes to be called, is followed by Rep. Michael Capuano at 16 percent and Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year, who has four percent.

Coakley, the only woman running and the only candidate who’s already won a statewide contest, began the race as the runaway favorite and has taken her share of hits. There’s a growing sense among Massachusetts observers that the 56-year-old A.G. isn’t quite the political natural she was initially taken for – that her blowout victories in previous campaigns (for district attorney in 1998 and for A.G. in 2006) really didn’t prove much and that she might be vulnerable in a real race.

To date, her Senate campaign has been ultra-cautious and devoid of inspiration. It’s not clear why – besides the fact that it’s a logical career move – she wants to be in the Senate or what she really wants to do with the office (much less how she’d accomplish whatever it is she wants to do), and this has opened Coakley up to some criticism.

But not nearly enough to make it a close race. For one thing, she began the campaign with such a massive lead that she can afford to lose support. Her slippage was inevitable.

More importantly, her opposition is split, with Pagliuca and Capuano basically tied for a distant second place. Add their support together (a combined 33 percent in the Suffolk poll) and Coakley might be sweating. But with Pagliuca dumping millions into television ads and Capuano charging ahead full steam, it’s just about impossible to see one of them breaking free and challenging Coakley over the next month.

That said, Capuano was actually handed a golden opportunity to make it more of a two-way race last week, when Coakley announced that she’d vote against the final version of the health care bill if it contained the anti-abortion amendment that cleared the House last week. Shrewdly, Capuano pounced, saying that he opposed the amendment but would never let that be the reason to derail health care reform – and noting that some of the most historically significant bills to clear Congress (like some of the early civil rights legislation) was flawed and had to be fixed once they were on the books.

So far, so good. This allowed Capuano, who voted for the health care bill in the House last Saturday, to draw a direct contrast with the front-runner on a major issue. And public opinion was on his side: Most Democrats don’t want Barack Obama’s signature first-term push to go down the drain because of an abortion amendment, either.

But then, for some comically incomprehensible reason, Capuano reversed course, saying earlier this week that he, like Coakley, would oppose any final bill with the abortion amendment – and that he’d only voted for the bill in the House to keep the process alive. In effect, he voluntarily took an issue that was working well for him off the table – and in the process made himself look like a flip-flopper

So the race will plod on for a few more weeks. Maybe Pagliuca will spend his way into the mid-to-high 20 percent range, or maybe the scrappy Capuano – who can be a very compelling speaker – will. It won’t matter. Coakley will still be sitting at or over 40 percent, the only woman in a field full of men.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Kennedy passed away, a once-in-a-generation donnybrook seemed likely. Stephen Lynch, the culturally conservative congressman from Southie (and a man who previously stared down the Kennedy and Bulger families) seemed certain to run. Ed Markey, who backed out of that ’84 race at the last minute and then spent the next quarter-century trapped in the House, was interested. So was Joe Kennedy, Ted’s nephew and a former six-term congressman.

But one by one they (and others) backed out. The field went from potentially dazzling to downright underwhelming, and the race went from sure-fire classic to ho-hum non-event.

Give Capuano and Pagliuaca (and Khazei, for that matter) credit – at least they had the gumption to run. And they may be rewarded down the road: If the endangered Governor Deval Patrick goes down next year, the state Democratic Party will be without a leader. With the name recognition this race is providing them, Capuano or Pagliuca could be big fish in the 2014 governor’s race.

Maybe that will be a fun campaign. But this one sure hasn’t been.


A Massachusetts Snoozer