Friday, September 28, 2007

Can't Happen in Massachusetts!

"Vote for me. I'm inexperienced and that means I'm clean!"

That's the gist of the two leaders in the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan in the Fifth Congressional District. On a tale of the tape, Democrat Niki Tsongas and Republican Ogonowski are disturbingly similar, expect on a couple of policy positions. Either could take this race in one of the commonwealth's most conservative areas.

This race illustrates the risk of political clichés. Consider that other one, that people and businesses are overtaxed here in contrast to other states and nations. Taxachusetts has a literary ring, but is not accurate. Likewise and to this race, the tired theme that this is a state of liberals based on party registration and our national elections shows a real lack of observation and understanding.

On paper in the most literal sense, this is a Democratic state and the majority of Democrats report they are liberal or progressive. For example, after the 2006 election, we had only 13% (about one in eight) of the General Court seats help by Republicans. That fairly well reflects voter registration of 14% for the GOP.


Yet, don't get me started with DINOs (Democrats in name only) and unenrolled voters. They can range like nomadic goats all over the political desert and are the reason we are so slow to enact progressive legislation here.

The few big Massachusetts cities are in fact pretty solidly left wing in voting. Yet even in Boston, it's easy to pick neighborhoods where the majority of the registered voters are Democrats, yet the votes are socially and fiscally conservative. This is more the case in the Fifth.

That SW to NE diagonal from next to Worcester to Haverhill includes quite a few wealthy suburbs and towns, Lowell and other industrial and blue-collar areas, and enough rural communities to edge toward red. We see that now as recent polls have had Ogowonski within 10% of Tsongas.

While this quickie summer race was supposed to be a promenade for Ms. Niki, she's having to shed her pumps to wade in the mud. She could lose this one.

We think of this same seat in 1990 when the incumbent, Democrat Chester G. Atkins, scraped by over Republican challenger John MacGovern. The other votes could have gone either way, with totals being 110,232/101,017/9,891. This less-than-4% margin prompted the Democrats to put Marty Meehan up two years later. He started with a 52.2% to 37.5% victory over Republican Paul Cronin and got stronger from there, and ran unopposed three times.

Insider Smears

The current fight is not one where we need the Mr. Smith character to bring integrity to the office. Meehan was fine and in many areas better than fine. This is not a case where people should be saying the resigned candidate was an example of too many white lawyer guys — fresh blood, a new perspective, and an outsider, please.

Yet, ironically because of their backgrounds, both leading candidates are trying variations on such themes. On the face of it, neither has the experience for jump-on-the-treadmill performance. Both have high name recognition in our little world because of deceased relatives as the number one asset.

Niki wears her last name or that of her late husband, the well respected U.S. Rep. then Sen. Paul Tsongas. Yet, she kept a double-arm distance from his work when he was in office. Instead of legislative savvy, she was been on hospital boards and a middle-of-the-pack community-college dean.

Jim is very similar. He dresses in the name and heroic patina of his brother John, a pilot of AA 11, hijacked and flown into a World Trade Tower on 9/11/1. He has a background as a farmer and 28 years in the USAF and Guard, retiring as chicken colonel. His actually has somewhat more of a managerial and political résumé, given the nature of the military.

On the Democratic side, primary voters went with Tsongas over several highly qualified state legislators. They seemed to favor the emotional links and name recognition.

In the first debate of the candidates, last night, fairness muddled things a bit as the two were joined by surely also-ran to be candidates Kevin Thompson (Constitution Party), Patrick Murphy (independent) and Kurt Hayes (independent). Yet at every chance, Niki and Jim went over variations on nearly identical attacks.

Each claimed that it was the other one who was the insider. Niki pointed to Jim being a pro-Iraq War Bush lapdog (my term). Jim said that Niki was supported by D.C. insiders and that was proof she was same old-same old.

I question Jim's wisdom on this. Stressing how much beloved elected officials favor your opponent may not be the best strategy. Moreover, Niki is playing to a strong base of voters tired of burying local soldiers in a largely unpopular war.

Issue Differences

Jim has a better wedge with immigration. The district does not have a big immigrant voter populations except in a few places like Lowell. This relatively conservative district also seems to have lost the sense that its ancestors were immigrants, mostly before there was any regulation on entry. Jim is strongly agin' 'em and uses loaded terms like Congress trying to "sneak benefits" to immigrants. Niki wants a way for undocumented aliens to earn citizenship.

That other big issue, the war, is even clearer. Jim is a stay-the-course guy, until Iraq is "safe and secure." Niki wants a specific timetable to get troops out within six months, shifting the situation to other Iraqis and other nations.

What's fascinating is that this confluence of factors for the pair probably won't lead to the first Republican to hold this seat since 1975, but it could.

Fortunately for Niki, Jim is no mellifluous orator. She's not the silver tongue herself, but she more than holds her own against his few rigid themes. Unlike the primary, the issues are stark. During the summer, no one issue stripped the veneer off Tsongas. Health care and her affiliation with big medical interests was there, but voters were not stirred. State Rep. Jamie Eldridge was clearly the most liberal and progressive of the Democrats, but again, this relatively conservative district was apparently the wrong audience for that theater.

This one could very well be like Meehan's first win. Niki might get the seat by 15% or 10% or 5%. Once in, the spot should be hers as long as she can stomach it.

Follow-up: Over at, Tony notes that the Fifth has moved in a major poll from solidly Democratic to leans that way.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make a lot of good points, but the thing about the unenrolled voters is a little overblown. Basically, the vast majority of unenrolleds don't really go either way, as the stereotype would have it. The majority are voters who don't want to enroll formally in a party for whatever reason but reliably vote for that party all or most of the time. True swing voters are a lot more rare.