BOSTON — The Democrat who let the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat slip from her grasp now risks losing her day job to an unexpected opponent: A last-minute write-in candidate.
Following a crushing Senate loss to Republican Scott Brown in a January special election, Martha Coakley faced no GOP challenger in her bid for re-election as state attorney general.
That changed when James McKenna won an unlikely write-in GOP nomination two weeks ago. And with the help of Brown's campaign consultants, McKenna is trying to brand Coakley as part of the establishment in a state where voters have recently shown they're willing to shake things up.
"The Beacon Hill boys and girls club is a free-for-all of waste, fraud and corruption, where holier-than-thou attitudes prevail and the special interests run the show. I'm listening to the people, and they say, 'No more,' and I agree," McKenna, a former prosecutor, said Wednesday on the first of three campaign announcement stops across the state.
Coakley and McKenna hold their first debate Thursday, but she said in an interview she relishes the campaign and the chance it gives her to defend her record.
"I think an attorney general is not a political job; it's a law enforcement job," she said. "I'm proud of my record, I'll stand on it and I think it's easy for someone who's not been in public service, and who's not been in the public sector, to kind of stand by the sidelines and sort of throw brickbats. But I'm happy to answer 'em."
The rejoinder was emblematic of the more aggressive posture Coakley has struck since she disappointed Democrats nationally by losing control of Kennedy's seat.
The defeat not only ended a political rise that started when Coakley was a young prosecutor, but it cost President Barack Obama the veto-proof majority he hoped to use to pass his health care overhaul in the Senate.
Obama ultimately prevailed after parliamentary maneuvering, but Brown has gone on to national fame as a pivotal swing vote. The 57-year-old Coakley has reverted to crisscrossing Massachusetts to retain the job she's held for two terms.
"I don't see her as vulnerable," said Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry, noting that a higher composition of Democrats will turn out for the general election.
Berry also said Coakley erred in trying to ignore Brown before he became "something of a cult figure." And this time, the governor's race will overshadow campaigns for the state's other constitutional offices.
Republican Charles Baker is waging a stiff challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in a race some analysts see as a bellwether for Obama's re-election prospects. There has been no public polling in the attorney general's race, but Coakley has a substantial cash advantage over McKenna in this traditionally Democratic state: $400,000 to $5,000, according to their most recent campaign finance reports.
McKenna, 49, stunned both the Massachusetts Republican Party and state election officials in the Sept. 14 primary by successfully garnering 27,711 write-in votes – nearly triple what he needed to qualify for the general election ballot.
The state GOP quickly assembled a new campaign team led by Beth Lindstrom, Brown's campaign manager. She is being assisted by Brown's former campaign political and new media directors.
That team has since sought to reprise Brown's line of attack. In an e-mail Wednesday, they branded Coakley as aloof, just as they did last winter after Coakley complained about shaking hands in the cold outside a hockey game.
"It's like Greenwich Village," a local newspaper that was cited in the e-mail quoted Coakley as saying Monday while she toured a row of trendy shops in solidly blue-collar Worcester. "Who knew?"
Laura Rigas, McKenna's communications director, said in a statement, "What did she expect? Martha is out of touch, plain and simple."