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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.

I don’t doubt Markey’s ability to put together a campaign or the DSCC’s diligence in making certain that he does so, but it’s never a bad idea to have a test run before the actual race.

It would be different, of course, if a primary would produce a deeply fractured party and a dramatically weakened, ideologically extreme nominee. But there is no indication that would happen if Markey faced a primary from Rep. Michael E. Capuano, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch and/or state Sen. Ben Downing.

Capuano’s late November fundraising report showed him with $491,000 in the bank, while Lynch had $740,000 on hand. In contrast, Markey had more than $3.1 million, and given his endorsements and contacts, he would have no trouble outraising primary opponents.

Lynch is a conservative Democrat by Massachusetts standards, while some voting ratings put Capuano slightly to Markey’s left. But the differences between the three men are small on the issues. We aren’t talking then-Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar versus Richard Mourdock or then-Delaware Rep. Michael N. Castle versus Christine O’Donnell here — two instances where the GOP primary produced a much less desirable (or even unelectable) nominee.

Markey has a few obvious general election vulnerabilities that Brown would try to exploit in a special election, and it might be wise for the long-serving Democrat to address them sooner (in a primary) rather than later (against Brown).

After 36 years in the nation’s capital, even working for issues with which many in Massachusetts agree, Markey is inextricably linked with Congress and everything that Congress has done. Given Congress’ current standing, Markey’s long service could be a mixed bag.

Brown has already made an issue of Markey’s residence. Though the Democrat owns the house in Malden, Mass., in which he grew up and technically resides, he really hasn’t “lived” in the house in years — at least not the way you and I live in our homes.

And finally, while Massachusetts voters don’t have problems sending liberals to Washington, D.C., Markey’s very liberal record will give Brown, who is certain to talk about his own “independence,” plenty to shoot at.

Obviously, these vulnerabilities aren’t necessarily fatal, and the state’s Democratic bent is almost certainly a bigger problem for Brown than any or all of Markey’s vulnerabilities are for him.

But a primary would give Markey an opportunity to address these concerns in a more favorable political environment, making the issues less dangerous for him in the special election when the charges will come from Brown.

Yes, party strategists always hate primaries of their own. But Democratic primaries last year in Connecticut and New Mexico didn’t stop the party from holding those open seats, and a primary in Massachusetts later this year would prove whether Markey is as strong a nominee as some assume and test him under fire. And you can bet that there will be plenty of fire in the special election against Brown.

Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).

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