Opinion

The real lesson of the looming Martha Coakley disaster

National Republicans might see Charlie Baker's success and think if they drop social issues they can win anywhere. Not so fast...

Yes, Martha Coakley is that bad.

The Massachusetts attorney general is most famous for blowing a huge lead in 2010 to lose the commonwealth's special Senate election for the late Ted Kennedy's seat to Scott Brown — then a no-name Tea Partier best known for driving a truck. And while next Tuesday's gubernatorial contest is much closer, she seems poised to follow up her 2010 debacle with a loss to Republican Charlie Baker in this year's governor's race.

While only one major survey has Baker ahead by anything like a comfortable margin, Coakley has trailed in six of the last eight polls. A seventh had the race tied. Even the down-the-line liberal Boston Globe endorsed Baker over Coakley, concluding the Republican would provide the "best counterpoint to the instincts of an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature."

Coakley doesn't inspire anyone, not even her fellow Democrats. She seems oddly detached from Boston culture, as if a UFO dropped her in the middle of Yawkey Way from an alien planet.

"I think that people still think from 2010 that I don't have a sense of humor or I'm too chilly," Coakley admitted in a recent debate. "I've worked for four years to overcome that."

As they say, show, don't tell.

But it's not all on Coakley, of course. Twice she has sought a promotion in the worst possible political climate for Democrats — even in Massachusetts, where fewer than 13 percent of registered voters are Republicans.

The state's Democratic power establishment has been rocked with scandal. Three consecutive statehouse speakers were convicted of felonies. And the commonwealth's independents — now a plurality of registered voters — are finally tiring of one-party rule.

No Republican has replicated Brown's 2010 special election success — yet. But several GOP congressional candidates and Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez have won more than 40 percent of the vote in recent races, as did Brown in his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2012 and Baker in his first (failed) gubernatorial campaign.

Overall, the Massachusetts political climate has a feel similar to 1990, when Bill Weld — Baker's former boss — kicked off 16 straight years of Republicans in the governor's mansion.

Baker, like Weld, is a social liberal. He supports gay marriage and abortion rights. In fact, he is to the left of both Brown and pre-presidential campaign Mitt Romney.

So if Baker wins, expect some national Republicans to draw the following lesson: Drop the social issues and we can win anywhere.

Liberated from the culture wars, Republicans can turn almost any election into a referendum on whether voters want their taxes raised. It can be a winning formula even in the bluest states.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is another 1990s example such Republicans point to. If a socially liberal Republican can make it there, he'll make it anywhere.

And while few of these Republicans would admit it publicly, one alternative to pursuing the type of minority outreach that has so far failed the GOP is uniting white voters by papering over their divisions on values.

But winning an election in Massachusetts, or even Scott Brown's adopted state of New Hampshire, is very different from winning nationally. Social conservatives remain an indispensable part of the national GOP electoral coalition. White evangelicals are the party's largest single voting bloc.

Affluent white independents in the Greater Boston suburbs aren't the only swing voters. There are many working-class whites for whom the Republican economic message has little purchase. They pull the GOP lever because of social issues.

Even some economic conservatism is a product of a form of social conservatism: certain attitudes and values about work, independence, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. It's the political manifestation of the Protestant work ethic.

In national races, Baker-Weld Republicans quickly find themselves too conservative for their erstwhile Northeastern admirers and too liberal for many of their fellow Republicans.

Consider that most of the Boston Globe editorial page's praise of Baker as a competent, conservative-ish but not too conservative technocrat could have been written about Romney circa 2002.

As a Massachusetts-bred Republican, I'm hopeful about Charlie Baker's chances. I just don't think the follies of Martha Coakley and Beacon Hill should be used to devise the party's national strategy.

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