The September 6th statewide primaries in Massachusetts will be among the last sets of US elections before the November midterms, and the top of the ticket in the Bay State will be a referendum on who voters want to succeed outgoing Republican Governor Charlie Baker. With no Massachusetts Republican even remotely approaching Baker’s sky-high approval ratings, the Democratic primary is considered the de-facto general election in a state that voted for Joe Biden by 33 points. The heavy favorite to win both the primary and the general is two-term Attorney General Maura Healey, who has managed to accumulate both strong progressive credentials and sky-high name recognition during her time in office.
If Healey wins the Democratic nomination, as expected, she would be a prohibitive favorite in the general against any Republican, especially GOP primary frontrunner Geoff Diehl, who has made a series of controversial statements on hot-button issues such as abortion and the 2020 election. Interestingly, however, a November victory for Healey would be a historical break from precedent in Massachusetts, as a state Attorney General has not successfully sought the Governorship in decades. Given the newfound likelihood of a historical novelty occurring in November, it may be worthwhile to go back in time and look at where previous attorney-general-turned-gubernatorial hopefuls came up short.
Martha Coakley (D, 2007-2015)
Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley was sworn in as AG in 2007, becoming the first woman to hold the office in state history. A rare statewide official from western Massachusetts, she was involved with many left-leaning initiatives including wrapping up litigation surrounding the Big Dig construction projects in Boston, challenging the constitutionality of the anti-LGBT Defense of Marriage Act, and winning settlements from Goldman Sachs and Fremont Investment & Loan for their abuse of subprime lending during the buildup to the Great Recession. Her tenure did come with some notable downsides, however, especially in Massachusetts crime labs, where accusations of tampering with samples resulted in the dismissal of tens of thousands of drug convictions, the largest in US history at the time.
Coakley’s first brush with high-profile national elections actually came when she ran for Senate in the 2010 special election to replace Democratic senator Ted Kennedy, who died in office after nearly five decades in the nation’s upper chamber. Amid a difficult political environment for Democrats, her gaffe-laden campaign came up short against that of Republican Scott Brown. Massachusetts had not elected a GOP Senator since 1972, making Coakley’s loss particularly embarrassing for Democrats.
In 2014, Coakley ran to succeed retiring Democratic Governor Deval Patrick. A Republican-leaning national environment, voter fatigue at the Patrick administration, and a Boston Globe endorsement for her Republican opponent Charlie Baker combined to cement another Democratic loss. Since 2014, Coakley has worked in private legal circles, notably as a lobbyist for Juul, the e-cigarette maker.
Tom Reilly (D, 1997-2005)
Tom Reilly was the Middlesex County District Attorney from 1991 to 1999, and became Attorney General in the 1998 election. His notable actions in the office included an investigation of the sale of the Boston Red Sox in 2001-2002 and a landmark report and investigation on the then-new revelations of pastoral child abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. Reilly ran for governor in 2006, and lost the Democratic primary to former US Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick. Following his loss, Reilly retired from politics and went back to private practice, and he is now the special counsel at Hunton Andrews Kurth, a law firm.
Scott Harshbarger (D, 1991-1999)
Scott Harshbarger was District Attorney of Middlesex County when he was elected to head the Attorney General’s office in 1990. He was notably one of the first Attorneys General to sue the tobacco industry for harmful effects on children and public health, and pushed for regulations on handgun sales. After two terms as Attorney General, Harshbarger ran as the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1998, losing a very close race against Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci. Since then, he has returned to private practice.
James Shannon (D, 1987-1991)
A member of Congress from the Merrimack Valley-based 5th Congressional district, Jim Shannon became the state’s Attorney General in 1986, defeating Republican US Attorney Edward Harrington by just 10 points. But Shannon was primaried in 1990 by his successor, Scott Harshbarger, and aside from a brief stint as the Massachusetts head of Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign, returned to private life.
Francis Bellotti (D, 1975-1987)
Background: Frank Bellotti was a World War II veteran, who was elected as Lieutenant Governor in 1962, and unsuccessfully ran for Governor in 1964 and 1970. During his tenure he supported efforts to institute desegregation in Boston, and also was the named defendant in the landmark Supreme Court case, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which defined the free speech rights of corporations.
Political fate: Bellotti ran for governor again in 1990, but lost the Democratic primary to Boston University President John Silber. Since then, he still is in private practice in Boston and participates in local politics. Bellotti’s son, Michael Bellotti, is active in Norfolk County politics.
Robert H. Quinn (D, 1969-1975)
Robert Quinn was the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives when he was selected as Attorney General by the legislature in 1969. He won a full term in his own right in 1970 and was known for championing the “Quinn Bill,’’ which offered financial incentives for law enforcement officers to pursue higher education. After a full term as Attorney General, Quinn ran for governor in 1974, but lost the Democratic primary to future governor and 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Following his loss, he became a prominent lobbyist in Boston and served as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the University of Massachusetts system.
Elliot Richardson (R, 1967-1969)
Elliot Richardson became Attorney General in 1967 after stints as the state’s Lieutenant Governor and as the US Attorney for Massachusetts. Richardson’s time on Beacon Hill was relatively unremarkable, but he began to gain a higher profile when President Richard Nixon appointed him as Undersecretary of State in 1969. This was the first of a series of high-profile positions Richardson undertook; in 1970, he became the US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, a position he held until becoming Secretary of Defense in January 1973. But perhaps his most notable action came upon being appointed Attorney General in the very same year, where Richardson notably resigned instead of carrying out Nixon’s orders to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, triggering a chain of events now known as the Saturday Night Massacre, which led to Nixon’s resignation from office. This wasn’t Richardson’s last brush with public service, however; under the Ford administration, Richardson became the Ambassador to Great Britain and later was appointed Secretary of Commerce.
In 1984, with national service behind him, Richardson ran for the US Senate as a traditional moderate Yankee Republican with a robust national profile. In a surprising upset, however, he lost the primary to conservative Ray Shamie, marking the end of Richardson’s stint in politics.
Ed Martin (D, January 2, 1967- January 18, 1967)
Edward Martin served for 16 days as Acting Attorney General to serve in interim capacity until the legislature confirmed Governor John Volpe’s appointment of Elliot Richardson. Martin did not seek any higher office beyond his 16-day stint as Attorney General.
Edward Brooke (R, 1963-1967)
Edward Brooke became Attorney General after winning the office in 1962, becoming the first black man to be elected Attorney General of any state. In the office, Brooke placed a heavy focus on organized crime and corruption, convicting a number of associates of former Democratic Gov. Foster Furcolo. He also publicly repudiated Barry Goldwater’s strong conservatism in 1964, and became the most prominent Republican spokesperson for racial equality.
Brooke successfully ran for Senate in 1966, becoming the first popularly-elected black Senator anywhere. A leader of the liberal wing of the GOP, Brooke was one of the first Senators to call on Richard Nixon to resign. However, after winning a second term, a messy divorce resulted in public investigations over his finances, damaging his favorables and consigning him to a loss against Democratic Congressman Paul Tsongas in 1978.
Brooke remained active in private practice and in governmental affairs before his death in 2015. To date, he is the last Attorney General of Massachusetts to successfully seek higher office.
History shows that any Maura Healey victory would mark a deviation from the norm. But sudden shifts can happen, often breaking longstanding truisms — Elliott County, Kentucky, for instance, backed Donald Trump by over 50 points, but it had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every single election until Trump’s first victory in 2016. Similarly, no Democrat had won the presidency without Arkansas and Missouri until Obama in 2008; today, however, it is inconceivable that either state would not back the Republicans at the federal level.
There is a tendency to have an over-reliance on historical experiences, because it provides a convenient crutch for us to base our predictions on. But this can blind us to the small sample sizes involved and the change in the underlying historical currents that the elections really serve as signals for, and when this happens, it would be wise to remember the age-old truism: trends hold until they don’t, and so relying on them without independent justification can be quite dangerous.
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.