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Rothenberg: Are Democratic Insiders Missing the Boat in Massachusetts as Special Election Draws Closer?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Markey, above, is expected to be the Democratic nominee for Kerry’s seat later this year. Strategists see Markey as the best candidate to go up against Brown, who is only a week removed from the Senate. But a primary challenge may be just the thing to toughen Markey before he faces the former senator, Rothenberg writes.

Democratic insiders are hoping to avoid a primary to pick the party’s nominee for the special election to fill Democrat John Kerry’s eventual open Senate seat later this year. So, they have jumped on the Rep. Edward J. Markey bandwagon, hoping to anoint him as their nominee without much of a fight.

But would a primary really be bad for Democrats — and helpful for the expected GOP nominee, former Sen. Scott P. Brown? Count me as skeptical.

Markey has already been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, former state party Chairman Philip Johnson and Vicki Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. And Kerry has already said that he plans to vote for Markey.

Democratic strategists see Markey as the strongest possible nominee against Brown, and they worry that a hard-fought primary could drain resources, divide the party and give the Republican months to woo voters while Democrats are attacking each other.

But party strategists always are allergic to primaries, at least until a primary is unavoidable, at which time they often do an about-face and argue the advantages of such a contest.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons a primary might be good for Markey, including the fact that he has had only two competitive races in the past 36 years.

His first was in 1976, when he won a crowded Democratic congressional primary with 21 percent of the vote, which was tantamount to winning the seat in November.

His second, and last, competitive race was in the 1984 Democratic primary, when he defeated state Sen. Sam Rotondi, 54 percent to 41 percent.

That was the year that Markey entered the U.S. Senate race, but he eventually decided to drop out of the contest and seek re-election to the House. Rotondi, who had jumped into the congressional race when Markey announced for the Senate, didn’t think the congressman’s decision to reclaim his House seat was a good idea and remained in the primary.

Markey’s last competitive general election for the House was, well, never. His worst showing was in 1992, when plastic surgeon Stephen A. Sohn, a Republican, and Independent candidate Robert B. Antonelli combined to hold Markey to 62 percent of the vote. Sohn, who had Rotondi’s endorsement, made an issue of the fact that Markey had bounced almost eight dozen checks at the House bank.

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