15% rule promotes insiders, has to go

Mass. voters prefer CEOs, outsiders

Last week, Charlie Baker won a relatively close race to become the next governor of the Commonwealth. The outcome was surprising to many people, though for different reasons. A volunteer I spoke with at Christine Barber’s campaign headquarters on the afternoon of Election Day asked, “Do you think there’s really a chance he can win?” I assume the results, to him, were a shock.

I was surprised as well. I was surprised that it was as close as it was. I was confident that Martha Coakley was not going to become governor. While she did lose, it certainly wasn’t a blowout. I think everyone who supported a different Democratic candidate is convinced that the other candidate would have won. The truth is, we don’t know. But Coakley did not win.

Shortly after Coakley’s defeat in her 2010 campaign for Senate, I spoke on a panel at the Democratic Party Campaign Institute. Pretty much all the attendees were frantic about what the loss meant for us and what we needed to do going forward. My (only slightly hyperbolic) answer was that Coakley’s campaign was the worst campaign in the history of democracy and the lesson Democrats should draw is that in the future we need better candidates and better campaigns. That is still my answer – and when we got a great candidate in Elizabeth Warren two years later, we won.

The sad fact about our history in gubernatorial contests in Massachusetts is that, at the end of Charlie Baker’s first term, we will have had exactly one Democratic governor in 28 years. One elected Democrat to four elected Republicans.

However, in the rush to make sense of this year’s defeat, I think that people are looking in the wrong direction. Martha Coakley isn’t a great candidate, but the Martha Coakley who ran for governor this year was miles better than the Martha Coakley who ran for Senate in 2010. (The Charlie Baker who ran this year was also better than the 2010 Charlie Baker.) This year, Coakley was … fine. She wasn’t great, nor was she bad. She worked hard and seemed to have learned from her mistakes. For every equivocation on issue questions that annoyed people, there was a “sweetheart” moment or some such from Baker.

I could go on and on about things I thought were done poorly on the Coakley campaign, though I could criticize the Baker campaign, too. But continually focusing on the particulars of this campaign (or the last one, or the one before that) makes us miss the far more important systemic points.

So why didn’t Coakley win in the bluest of the blue states, where many pundits argued, armed with maps and charts and electoral histories, that it just didn’t make sense that she could lose? Was it Coakley’s fault? Tim Foley’s? Doug Rubin’s? The Democratic Party’s? The Super PACs’?

There are a bunch of things (I’m going to get into four) that we need to look at with some historic perspective to make sense of why the outcome of this race should be no surprise at all.

1. When Republicans win statewide office in Massachusetts they simply do not win on ideological grounds.

Looking at recent history, Weld was viewed by many Democrats as more liberal than Silber and he earned many of their votes. Cellucci didn’t run an ideological campaign at all. Romney was whatever Romney needed to be for whatever campaign he was running. Brown was a regular guy in a truck. Baker ran as someone who could do a really good job managing things.

Republicans don’t run ideological campaigns here. Republicans run (and win) by running against the corrupt Beacon Hill Democratic establishment.

It might be worth asking here: is the Beacon Hill Democratic establishment corrupt? Well, I’m gonna boldly dodge that question by noting the past three speakers of the house, three state senators in the last decade, the Probation department, and the list goes on… It’s completely beside the point to argue about whether the Massachusetts Democratic Party (of which, not for nothing, I’ve been a proud member for about 28 years now) is truly corrupt. The point is that it’s not too difficult to understand why swing voters in Massachusetts have some concerns about unchecked power. It doesn’t matter if that’s just the perception – it is the perception of the people who decide the outcomes of elections.

Like it or not, the attorney general is absolutely viewed as part of that establishment, as are most constitutional officers.

2. A sitting Democratic attorney general has never won in Massachusetts.

This is a fact. I had a fun day recently looking at nearly 200 years of Massachusetts electoral history. Here’s the scorecard for the AGs:

The last time an AG was elected to higher office was in 1966, when Republican Attorney General Ed Brooke won a seat in the US Senate. (Brooke was a liberal, by the way, and organized the liberal side of the Republican Party against the Nixon-type factions.)

Since then, it’s not as though other AGs who aspire to higher office didn’t try! Coakley ran and lost twice. Tom Reilly lost to Deval Patrick, a total outsider to Massachusetts state politics. Scott Harshbarger lost to Argeo Paul Cellucci. (And Harshbarger actually ousted an incumbent Dem to become AG.) Bellotti lost to John Silber. Robert Quinn lost to Michael Dukakis.

Not a stellar history for Massachusetts AGs, whether in the general election or the primary election. (For those who don’t venture outside Route 128: AGs get elected as governors and US senators all the time in other states!)

To find a Democratic AG who was elected governor in Massachusetts, we have to go all the way back to Paul Dever. He was elected AG in 1934, then ran for governor and lost in 1940. Then, after enlisting and serving in WWII, he eventually won a race for governor in 1948.

And then we have to travel back to 1852, when our good friend John Clifford – from the Whig Party – was elected governor while serving as AG. However, he wasn’t elected AG; he was appointed, as the office had been eliminated for a bunch of years prior to that.

(At some point I’ll look at the history of every constitutional officer directly running for Governor. For recent years only Shannon O’Brien comes to mind.)

3. Voters tend to vote for chief executives and Beacon Hill outsiders to become governor.

When you look at who actually becomes governor – especially the unexpected winners who are often the most telling – they tend to be people who have run things. (Of course, the attorney general runs something, but that only reinforces my previous point. AGs should be able to win these elections, but the electorate views them as part of the system more than as the “person in charge,” in part because they so often gain the office by working their way up through the system. But other states have neither the same one-party Beacon Hill establishment nor the same process that requires insider support to advance.)

Again, let’s look at the history. Deval Patrick came out of nowhere. Let’s be honest, when we heard that someone named “Deval” was running pretty much every one of us said “huh?” Then we elected him governor over the AG in the primary and over the LG in the general.

The recent string of Republican governors in Massachusetts began with Bill Weld, who was a former federal prosecutor who ran the US Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. Not only that, but he resigned in protest of improper conduct on the part of his boss, US AG Edwin Meese, and advocated for Meese’s prosecution in testimony before Congress. C’mon, that’s pretty cool!

The incredibly popular Weld ran and lost for US Senate against John Kerry, however (because we simply don’t elect governors and senators for the same reasons), and eventually resigned, leaving Cellucci to become governor and defeat – you guessed it – Attorney General Scott Harshbarger! Cellucci left in the middle of his term, and Jane Swift became governor, only to step aside for bazillionaire Mitt Romney – another chief executive – who went on to defeat Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

Back further, Dukakis was the LG nominee on the losing ticket in 1970 before running and winning in 1974. He was defeated in his primary four years later by Ed King – a business leader – before winning the seat back another four years later.

The upshot: generally the outsider candidate for governor wins against the insider. And that’s why the next point is so important.

4. The Democratic primary process is rigged to hinder the ability of outsiders to win the primary and hurts any eventual primary winner’s chances of being elected in general elections.

Around the time of the state convention this year, against my better judgment, I got into an argument with people on Facebook about the 15 percent rule – which requires candidates for statewide office to win 15 percent of the delegate vote at the convention to appear on the ballot. My mistake, in addition to engaging, was that I made the less crucial point. I simply argued that the 15 percent rule is an affront to democracy and that primary voters should get to determine who the party’s nominee will be (just as they do for most offices, without any problems).

In fact, the process for running statewide in Massachusetts is more problematic than that for a few reasons. It makes the least viable types of candidates in a general election (the connected insiders) the most likely to emerge ahead. They have the connections and the networks. They’ve held office and have politically useful relationships. They have the preexisting organizations to elect the delegates in the first place.

The 15 percent rule actually blocks out candidates who might be great. After the election, I was asked by a few people whether I thought Juliette Kayyem could have won the primary or defeated Baker. The truth is I have no idea … and neither do you. I have no idea because I never saw her campaign because she had to spend most of her time courting delegates.

As for the LG’s race, I also don’t know Steve Kerrigan (though I met him in a coffee shop once and he seemed quite nice). But I do know that he is a party activist and was able to parlay that into being the top vote getter for LG while James Arena-DeRosa, who seemed kind of cool, was eliminated. Why was that necessary?

To those who say, “Well, if you can’t get 15 percent of the delegates, how can you be elected governor?” I suggest you compare the history of actual electoral outcomes to delegates’ votes or Democratic Committee endorsements relative to actual voting preferences – Steve Grossman and Warren Tolman, just as two recent examples – and then you can conclude either that you simply know better than the voters or that you’re really out of touch. Your choice.)

The whole process wastes candidates’ time, requiring them to spend months courting delegates instead of campaigning more broadly and building support. This is great fun for the delegates, of course. I attended the convention this year and the delegates had a fantastic time! (Spoiler: I have an idea that might allow you still to have a great time.) But that’s not the point. Winning should be the point. If the fact that candidates for governor call you directly and know you by name is more important to you than promoting strong Democratic nominees who can win statewide elections, then please leave now. But I believe that most of the delegates want a process that helps us promote strong Democratic candidates.

Finally, the 15 percent rule dissuades potentially appealing candidates from running before the convention even begins! I’ve been in meetings with people who decide not to run because they don’t have the connections. What if Dan Wolf had wanted to run after the ethics challenges were dropped but at that point most of the delegates had been locked up? What if someone else wanted to get in? Coakley and Grossman got a combined 58.5 percent of the delegate vote. That means mathematically only two more candidates could possibly have advanced in the race. (Indeed, only one did.) So we don’t even know who might have been a great candidate this time.

The system, sadly, worked exactly as it is designed to do. It favored the establishment. When the 15 percent rule was adopted in its present form about a decade ago, it was supposed to be “a candidate hurdle requiring a candidate to demonstrate their campaign’s organizational skills” and “winnow the field of candidates to those with a reasonable expectation that they could be victorious in the Primary election.” In the interest of allowing candidates to campaign across the state to rank and file voters furthering their chances of winning and allowing newer candidates a reasonable chance to prove themselves in front of the voters, it’s really time to change this.

So what can we do? We could simply abandon the 15 percent rule. That is not likely to happen, but I think there is a way to maintain a gatekeeper role for the delegates while freeing candidates to spend more time trying to get elected – making their case to the less-insider voters and building statewide organization – and to encourage new outsider candidates to take part in the Democratic Party process.

I propose requiring a 15 percent vote of the delegates in order to be on the primary ballot but having the delegates vote up or down on each candidate separately. If seven great people run and the delegates feel they all would be strong candidates, they can vote for each of them to get on the ballot. If a candidate is truly offensive to the shared values of our party, the delegates could certainly prevent that candidate from moving forward. (To see that this can happen one only needs to go back to 2012 when Marisa DeFranco received less than 5 percent of the convention vote in just a two-person race.)

And if seven great candidates all run for governor, how is that bad? There would be at least six candidates after the fact that will have had the opportunity to build statewide support and organization for a future run and bring more people into the process. Not a bad way perhaps to build a farm team and engage even more activists for future years! (Former candidates often go on to win future statewide elections: Dukakis was the LG nominee before winning the governorship and Grossman ran and lost for governor before being elected treasurer.)

Further, this procedural change would allow candidates unconcerned with winning the party endorsement to lock up their 15 percent and then focus on campaigning. A Don Berwick or Juliette Kayyem would be able to say to a delegate who was supporting, say, Steve Grossman for the endorsement, “Look I’m not a threat to you for that, I just want to get on the ballot.” A Grossman or Coakley campaign could approach the Berwick delegates in the same manner but in reverse. Then the candidates could campaign, build organization, and raise money.

There are some reasons that people suggest the convention process might be helpful for getting Democrats elected. For example, some say it engages people early on to organize for caucuses and build structure. But a change like this would in no way impede that process: there would still be a significant role for the delegates and opportunities to engage people and bring them into the process. In fact, if more viable and strong candidates were encouraged to run, this effect would only be amplified. (Also, the early and effective organizing that happens on campaigns from president down to the local level clearly demonstrates that such a high-stakes convention is certainly not necessary for good campaigning!)

People have also suggested that those activists who spend the most time working within the party and going to caucuses should have more of a say – and that if people want to support other candidates they should be willing to commit the same effort. While I have incredible admiration for those who work on their ward and town committees and the state party, I would only remind them that we generally strive to reduce barriers to participation, not promote them. At a time when real barriers to participation are being made law in states around the country, we should not be suggesting that some group of people who have the time to go through extra steps should have extra influence.

There are many other issues that could and should be discussed about how a different process could help us nominate the strongest candidates and increase our chances in elections. My suggestion above is only one that is simple, not disruptive, and that I believe will lead to greater vibrancy within our party. We should absolutely discuss having earlier primary elections. We should discuss primary runoffs if no candidate gets 50 percent. We should discuss the role the party plays and the process by which its leaders are selected. Changing the 15 percent rule would not be a panacea, but it would be a great start.

We will never know if Juliette Kayyem would have emerged as a rock star once people started really paying attention, or if Dan Wolf could have jumped back in and been viable, or if either could have won the nomination and beat Charlie Baker. Or if someone we’d never heard of might have stepped forward and caught electoral fire.

Meet the Author
What we do know is that we routinely promote insiders and lose the governor’s race. It doesn’t happen every time. Deval Patrick took the party by storm and was successful. But we should strive for a process that opens the door to outsider candidates more often, instead of consistently nominating those who have the least chance to be successful – as we just did. After all, Deval Patrick is the only Democrat we’ve elected governor since Michael Dukakis, and we should be way better than that.

Dan Cohen is a longtime Democratic campaign strategist from Cambridge.