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01.18.10

Coakley's Stunning Gender Gap

As women’s groups make a last-ditch bid to help Martha Coakley win the Massachusetts Senate seat, they face a tough problem: The candidate leaves too many female voters cold.

High-level Democrats are anonymously blaming Marth Coakley for running a "sluggish campaign," as Coakley's aides leaked a memo blaming her loss on Washington Democrats, all before the polls have even closed. Below, Dana Goldstein on why the candidate leaves too many female voters cold. Plus, read an on-the-ground account from rival Scott Brown’s rallies.

If Martha Coakley loses Tuesday in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Democrats and progressives across the country will be devastated. But perhaps no group will be quite so disappointed as establishment feminists, who threw their weight behind the Massachusetts attorney general early on, when she faced a crowded primary field, and then watched, stunned, as Coakley’s lead disintegrated in the heavily Democratic state and her opponent, the previously unheard-of state senator Scott Brown, became a cause célèbre for disgruntled conservatives across the country.  

Even as women’s organizations focus on getting voters to the polls today—asking hundreds of thousands of their members across the country to phone-bank for Coakley from home—some are looking back at the race with regret, wishing their own organizations had realized, earlier on, the threat of the Tea Party movement rallying to Brown’s side, or the extent of voter disenchantment with President Barack Obama’s health-care bill.

According to several recent polls, female voters, who tend to be more liberal, are barely more likely than male voters to favor Coakley over Brown.

“I don’t think we saw this coming. … The mounting army coming from the Republican Party and all the Tea Party protesters. Maybe we could have forecasted that a little better,” says Lauren Martin, spokesperson for the Women’s Campaign Forum, a nonpartisan PAC that donates money to pro-choice female candidates. The group supported Coakley in both her primary and general-election races, but gave more during the primary, reflecting the conventional wisdom until just two weeks ago: that in liberal Massachusetts, Democratic primaries are where national races are won or lost.  

“I’ve lived in Massachusetts my whole life,” says Christina Knowles, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. “It’s a shock.”  

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What’s even more shocking is how little enthusiasm Coakley’s campaign seems to have generated among the women of Massachusetts. According to several recent polls, female voters, who tend to be more liberal, are barely more likely than male voters to favor Coakley over Brown; one poll shows Coakley behind by four points among women, another has the candidates tied for the female vote. One outlier poll, conducted for liberal blog The Daily Kos, reports Coakley enjoys 13 percent more female support than Brown. But strategists would expect the gender gap to be safely large in a typical election, with far more women than men supporting the Democratic candidate. When Ted Kennedy ran for reelection the final time, in 2006, 72 percent of women supported his bid.

Coakley did not go out of her way, especially during the general-election campaign, to play up her feminist credentials. She never filmed a general-election ad that presented a positive image of herself as a defender of reproductive rights and civil liberties, as opposed to just attacking Brown on those issues. She also never fully embraced the message that her ascension to the Senate would be historic, putting the number of women serving in the upper chamber at 18, an all-time high. She has called her gender “secondary,” eschewing the more emotional feminist appeal that Hillary Clinton made in the final months of her presidential campaign.  

That left women’s organizations making the activist case for Coakley without much media backup. “Martha’s a really great candidate for everything that NOW stands for,” says Knowles, of Massachusetts NOW. “She’s been a true champion of reproductive rights. She’s been a huge supporter of LGBT rights and gay marriage, and that’s something our members are very, very strong supporters of.”  

It’s not as though Coakley didn’t have a strong progressive record to run on. She is the only state attorney general to have sued the federal government, alleging that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional and discriminatory toward gay people. In a special election where getting the base to the polls is key, you’d think this would be a part of Coakley’s record she would boast about. Instead, she ran ads on prosecuting Internet sexual predators and supporting small business owners. She played it safe. 

But it’s also true that Coakley’s campaign and women’s groups—some of her biggest champions—were slow to read the shifting mood of the country, and pick up on the fact that she might be in trouble. There have been signs since early summer that health-care reform was reigniting the culture wars, with abortion rights firmly at the center of the debate. In July, Rep. Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat from Michigan, assembled a group of pro-life Democrats who vowed to vote “no” on any health bill that included coverage of abortion services, either publicly or privately financed. To the shock of pro-choice advocates, who had taken a less confrontational lobbying approach, Stupak’s ploy was largely successful in shifting the proposed legislation right.  

Of course, the renewed vitriol over abortion presents a risk for pro-choice candidates in the form of energized challengers like Scott Brown—but it also offers an opportunity. The White House and Congress’s general capitulation to antiabortion Democrats has angered many liberals, and the vast majority of Massachusetts voters are pro-choice. During the primary, Coakley took a major risk by saying she would oppose any version of health reform that rolled back reproductive rights. She later backtracked, perhaps realizing that after numerous legislative delays, she would likely soon be in the position of having to vote on the actual bill.  

But then, in an effort to drive values voters to the polls, Brown began touting his endorsement from Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Abortion was back in the spotlight. Last week, Coakley pressed Brown on his reproductive-rights record, attacking him in a debate, direct-mail appeal, and television advertisement for supporting a 2005 bill in the state legislature that would have allowed hospitals to deny emergency contraception to rape victims. She also called attention to Brown’s sponsorship of a “Women’s Right to Know” bill that would have enforced a 24-hour waiting period and required women to view ultrasound photographs before an abortion.

It may have been too little, too late. Still, despite the scary poll numbers, feminist groups continue to defend Coakley and her campaign, and said Monday that they believe she will prevail. Those who criticize Coakley as a lethargic candidate—as I did, in a recent column—“are living in a Disney movie where if she ran a good campaign, it would win,” says Terry O’Neill, president of NOW. “That’s not the real world. You have some people who are powerfully filled with hate and anger because they are unhappy with the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.”

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.