As one poll after another predicted a tight race for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, political activist Bob Marshall grew worried.
The day before the election, he called candidate Martha Coakley’s campaign office and asked if they needed help giving people rides to the polls. He waited for a response, then called again.
“They took down all my information, but they never called me back,” said Marshall, a retired teacher.
The lack of a response betrayed the lack of a field operation. There was no one to give rides to because the Coakley campaign never conducted voter identification, had no plans for voter mobilization and no visible presence in Boston’s black community.
No signs, no rallies, no campaign appearances save for an endorsement event in the South End in November. And no volunteers on the ground to make things happen on election day.
Last Wednesday, as the nation awoke to front-page photographs of Scott Brown, the state senator who waged a stunning upset to replace the U.S. senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. As the 41st republican, Brown could block President Obama’s health care proposal and stall the Democratic agenda — all the more reasons that many were left wondering how Coakley squandered a double digit lead.
Anyone in the black community — the state’s most loyal Democratic stronghold — had an up-close view of the problem. As Horace Small points out, the things that normally happen in a statewide campaign, didn’t.
“Martha Coakley lost because she ran a bad campaign,” said Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. “There was no voter identification. No voter mobilization. That’s what works. Not robo-calls from Washington state.”
Coakley campaign spokeswoman Gail Jackson-Blount did not return phone calls for this story.
To put Coakley’s loss in perspective, consider Dorchester’s predominantly black Ward 14, where 99 percent of the voters filled in the bubble for Coakley.
Or Roxbury’s Ward 12, where she got 95 percent of the vote. Not even liberal bastions like Northampton or Cambridge could deliver a vote that solidly Democratic.
Yet turnout in those two wards, which contain the highest concentration of black voters in the state, was just 35 percent. A get-out-the vote effort in the black and Latino communities could have increased Coakley’s votes.
But there was no visible campaign presence in the community.
“I think it was disrespectful,” said Sarah Ann Shaw, secretary of the Ward 12 Democratic Committee. “We were ignored. I look back at what Mike Capuano did. He did his open mikes. He opened an office in Dudley Square.”
Coakley’s nearest office was in Charlestown.
As news of Coakley’s disappearing lead spread in the days leading up to the election, labor unions and other organizations made last-ditch efforts to mobilize voters in other Massachusetts cities — Fall River, New Bedford, Lawrence, Springfield and Worcester.
But it was too little, too late, according to Small.
“How do you go into a campaign two weeks out with no field organization?” he said.
While Coakley won most cities, urban turnout was depressed. Boston’s was 43 percent. In Lawrence, it was just 28 percent.
Meanwhile, GOP activists were identifying and mobilizing voters in Brown’s largely suburban base. While statewide turnout was 53 percent, it was higher in wealthier communities that Brown won like Sherborn, where 77 percent of voters turned out or Topsfield, where 75 percent turned out.
The Republicans mobilized their manicured-lawn grassroots while the Democrats squandered their lead, according to Marshall.
“They thought it would be a coronation,” he said. “Instead, she got crowned. The losers aren’t just the people in Massachusetts, but people all over the country who need health care.”
Brown, whose platform included a promise to sink the Democrats health care reform bill, will serve the remainder of Kennedy’s term and face re-election in 2012.
GOP activists are talking of taking on Democratic incumbents in Congressional seats. Democrats are talking about what they can do to re-build.
“We need to deliver the message that we’re the people’s party. That we’re the party that cares about health care, that cares about benefits for working people, that believes everybody deserves a good job,” said City Councilor Felix Arroyo.
“And we’ve got to do a better job of making sure people who support us get out to the polls.”
The stunning Republican victory in Tuesday's Massachusetts Senate race will force Democrats to fundamentally rethink the meaning of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, especially the notion that Americans want more government help in matters such as obtaining health insurance. More »
State Attorney General Martha Coakley withstood a dismal turnout and became the first woman elected from Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate seat once held by John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and both John and Ted Kennedy. More »
If the crowd of more than 800 people who filled the Bethel AME church Sunday were looking for a dust-up between the four candidates running for an open U.S. Senate seat, they went home disappointed. More »