How to Avoid Embarrassment and Win Statewide Office

Three candidates running for governor show it's possible to rebound from earlier disastrous campaigns.
by | July 3, 2014 AT 2:50 PM

As embarrassing losses go, Martha Coakley's failure to win a U.S. Senate seat in January 2010 was a doozy.

Coakley was running to succeed U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, the larger-than life Massachusetts Democrat who had died the year before. Coakley, the state's attorney general, was a Democrat running in solidly blue Massachusetts, and she began the campaign better known than her Republican opponent, Scott Brown. The timing of the special election couldn't have been more important: President Obama's health-care law, which was poised to become his signature legislative achievement, hung in the balance.

But instead of cruising to an easy victory, Coakley stumbled and Brown ended up winning by a 5-point margin. Her hapless campaign, which included suggesting Curt Schilling -- a famous Red Sox pitcher -- was a Yankee fan, made her a target for mockery. Saturday Night Live led its spoof of Obama's State of the Union address this way: "Our nominee, Martha Coakley was the single most incompetent candidate ever to seek public office," said SNL's Obama character, played by Fred Armisen. "Shame on you, Martha Coakley! How do you not know that Curt Schilling pitched for the Red Sox? Martha Coakley, you are a disgrace. You couldn't beat Dick Cheney for mayor of Berkeley! You deserved to lose, Martha. You stunk up the joint."

Yet less than one year later, Coakley easily won another four years as the state's attorney general, and now, she's the frontrunner to win the governorship. "This race is Coakley's to lose," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

As it happens, Coakley is not the only candidate who has come back from embarrassment to win, or seriously challenge for, the governorship. In Kentucky, Democrat Jack Conway is a leading contender to succeed Steve Beshear in 2015, and in Minnesota, Democrat Mark Dayton is running for re-election this fall. Both of these candidates have survived some pretty embarrassing mishaps. So what happened? How did they go from goat to hero, and what can we learn from it? Let's take a closer look.

We'll start with Jack Conway, who in 2010 took flak for his star-crossed Senate campaign against Republican Rand Paul. At the time, Paul was seen as too conservative even for red-state Kentucky. But Conway made a number of gaffes, such as calling himself a "tough son of a bitch" at the Fancy Farm picnic, a closely watched gathering of politicos sponsored by the Catholic Church.

But his biggest blunder was jumping on a yarn from Paul's college days at Baylor University in which, according to GQ magazine, Paul and some friends blindfolded a woman and made her "bow down" to a deity known as "Aqua Buddha."Beyond drawing attention to a decades-old college prank of questionable relevance, the ad took a shot at Paul over religion. "Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible 'a hoax' -- that was banned from mocking Christianity and Christ?" said the ad's narrator. "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up? Tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his God was 'Aqua Buddha?'"

The ad drew fire not just from Paul's camp but also from a number of liberal commentators. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait called it "the ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year," while MSNBC's Chris Matthews gave Conway an extended grilling during a live interview, saying, "Didn't you do anything in college you think is a little strange? Or were you always a straight arrow?" The Aqua Buddha ad, combined with "Paul's very effective response, made the final margin double digits," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

But Conway managed to escape the taint. For starters, voters who might have worried about sending a Democrat to Washington to bolster a Democratic-majority Senate had fewer qualms about keeping him back in Kentucky to occupy a statewide office like attorney general. Some voters said, "he's OK as AG, since the office isn't particularly partisan," said Laura Cullen Glasscock, who edits the Frankfort-based Kentucky Gazette.

In 2011, Conway won a new term against a relatively weak Republican challenger, Todd P'Pool. Most importantly, experts say, Conway redoubled his efforts as AG, replacing voters' uneasy memories of his 2010 campaign with new accomplishments.

The attorney generalship is "a good-government post -- a good place from which to launch a statewide campaign," Glasscock said. "His positives go up with each suit he files on behalf of Kentucky's citizens."

With the state's off-year gubernatorial race still a year and a half away, the field -- and the direction of the contest to succeed Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear -- hasn't solidified yet. But Conway is considered a major player. He "has done a good job in office and used it effectively to build a base for the governor's race," Cross said.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Democrat Mark Dayton served a single Senate term so undistinguished that Time magazine named him one of the Senate's five worst members, highlighting his "erratic behavior" and noting that he'd "confounded his colleagues by complaining about basic facts of the job." But in the years between Dayton's departure from the Senate and his gubernatorial victory, he faced up to his shortcomings, including battles with mental illness and addiction, experts say.

"Dayton never hid from his bad Senate tenure," said David Schultz, a Hamline University political scientist. "He conceded his depression and alcohol problems and he was forgiven."

In his 2010 gubernatorial race, Dayton had a few advantages. He had higher name recognition than his opponents. A scion of the Target retail empire, he also had deep pockets. He had a Republican opponent, Tom Emmer, considered too conservative for the state. And a third-party candidate, Tom Horner, entered the race, likely hurting Emmer more than Dayton.

On Election Day, Dayton won by just a fraction of a percentage point -- though coming in the GOP tsunami year of 2010, that was nothing to sneeze at. He became the first Democrat to be elected governor of Minnesota since 1986, thanks to running a better campaign than Emmer.

"Dayton reunited the old [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] coalition of urban liberals, unions, and the Iron Range," Schultz has written, noting that Dayton crafted a message that resonated with voters -- that Minnesota is the "brainpower state." This year, Dayton is running for re-election (the first time he's done so for any office he's held). For now, he's a modest favorite, though the strength of his edge will likely depend on who the GOP nominates in the Aug. 12 primary. "Dayton has had a successful time governing, with a supportive legislature and an improvement in the state's economy," said Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier. "Those are the main reasons for his recovery."

So can Coakley follow in Dayton's footsteps and fully recover from her disastrous senate run? She will first have to win a competitive, three-way primary against state Treasurer Steve Grossman and former Obama health and human services official Donald Berwick. If she wins, then she'll likely face Republican Charlie Baker in November, as well as two third-party candidates, Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick. Baker has served as Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance and Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Like Dayton, Coakley has accepted her past failures in an attempt to move on. In September, Coakley made an appearance outside Fenway Park, hoping to turn the page on her past embarrassment. "Can I say hi? Martha Coakley, running for governor," she told one middle-aged woman, according to the Boston Globe. She gladhanded and poses for pictures with fans attending "Beard Night." "I've said I made mistakes in that race, and one of the things that I regretted afterward is that people had the perception that I didn't work hard or that I didn't care about it," Coakley told the Globe.

Meanwhile, Coakley, like Conway, has quietly assembled a run of accomplishments as attorney general, experts said. After winning a relatively easy reelection in November 2010, Coakley "put her nose to the grindstone, dropping out of the limelight and doing her job as AG," Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political scientist, said during an interview in Boston. The job enabled her to address consumer issues, women's issues, children, public safety, and taxes, among other things.

"She just seemed like someone who accepted the fate dealt her and kept going," Berry said. "She didn't seem deterred from going forward, instead of slinking off into the night."

To middle-aged women, Coakley became a symbol of resilience, Berry said -- someone who looks like they could live next door, leaving for work at 7:00 in the morning and coming home at 7:00 at night, looking tired." Dan Winslow -- a Republican former state legislator who served as general counsel to Scott Brown and has donated to both Coakley and the candidate he's supporting this fall, Baker -- said Coakley has improved her style as well as her substance.

Coakley "has markedly improved her delivery - she's not as wooden or robotic, and she is definitely running as the 'new and improved' Martha, just as Charlie Baker is," Winslow said.

Maurice T. Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, agreed. "She did learn" how to improve her game, Cunningham said. "She will never be a great campaigner, but she has been generally well-regarded as AG."

While Coakley is no slam-dunk to win the governorship, she has a strong shot, observers say.

"Baker will be a much stronger challenger than last time, but the Democratic party is so strong here, and the get-out-the-vote effort so robust, I think it's hard for even the best Republican candidate to beat a Democrat," said Scott Ferson, a former press secretary to Kennedy who's now president of the Liberty Square Group, a Boston-based consulting firm.

And if Coakley wins, those old embarrassments will finally be laid to rest.