Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Last Two Open Seats

In advance of the impending special election for Marty Meehan's Congressional seat in the 5th district and prompted by Susan M's prediction that only four candidates will survive until election day, I thought I'd take a closer look at the two most recent elections to open Congressional seats in Massachusetts. The most recent, as the press keeps reminding us, was in 2001 -- on 9/11, actually -- with a special election to replace the late Congressman Joe Moakley. Then state Senator Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston) was the winner of that election with a total of 39% of the vote. That year was a battle of sitting state Senators, with Lynch besting a field that consisted of then-Senator Cheryl Ann Jaques and current Senators Brian Joyce (D-Milton) and Mark Pacheco (D-Taunton) and a few other minor candidates for a total of seven candidates on the primary ballot. Here are the final results of that primary:

Stephen Lynch44,90539.44%Boston
Cheryl Ann Jacques32,93328.93%Needham
Brian Joyce16,81814.77%Milton
Mark Pacheco15,00913.18%Taunton
William Sinnott3,1102.73%Boston
John Taylor7670.67%Boston
William Ferguson2530.22%Milton
All Others540.05% 

The community that was the largest part of this district was, obviously, Boston, and Lynch won the election mainly because he won Boston convincingly, with 55% of the Boston vote. His closest competitor in the Hub was Jacques, who only mustered 30% of Boston. Of course, there were other factors to Lynch's win, but in this case, the crowded field was an advantage for the candidate from the largest community.

The 1998 election to fill Joe Kennedy's seat in the then 8th district was slightly different as it was a regularly scheduled election, and not a special election. As such, no sitting member of the legislature was willing to risk their seat to run. Even so, the 2001 special primary garnered more votes than the 1998 primary, which I did not expect. This election featured two former Reps, two Boston City Councilors, a former state Senator, a sitting and a former mayor, and three other candidates for a total of ten. Here are the results of that election:

Michael Capuano19,44622.88%Somerville
Ray Flynn14,83917.46%Boston
George Bachrach12,15714.30%Watertown
John O'Connor11,09213.05%Cambridge
Marjorie Clapprood10,44612.29%Watertown
Chris Gabrieli5,7406.75%Boston
Charles Yancey4,4375.22%Boston
Susan Tracy2,8583.36%Boston
Thomas Keane2,1502.53%Boston
Alex Rodriguez1,8022.12%Boston
All Others210.02% 

Note that Current Congressman Mike Capuano won this election with less than 23% of the vote. That low bar should be encouraging to aspiring candidates in this year's election. In any case, in the 1998 election, the largest communities were split -- former Mayor Ray Flynn won Boston with only 24% of the Boston vote and former state Senator George Bachrach won Cambridge with only 23% of that city's vote. Contrast that with Capuano, who destroyed the competition in Somerville, winning it with 55% of the vote there.

What I had been wondering was whether it was a foregone conclusion that one of the candidates from Lowell, the fifth district's largest community would win the election. From the results of the past two open seat elections, that does not necessarily have to be the case. In 2001, the vote from the largest community in the district did not split, and the candidate from that community won the election. In 1998, the opposite happened, and the votes from the two largest communities split among several candidates, and the candidate who dominated one of the smaller communities won. My feeling is that this year's race to replace Marty Meehan will be more similar to the 1998 election than the 2001 special election. This year there promises to be two candidates from Lowell who have the potential to split that city's vote, former Mayor and current city councilor Eileen Donoghue and the widow of former Senator Paul Tsongas, Niki Tsongas.

This suggests to me a slight advantage to Representative Barry Finegold (D-Andover), who represents part of Lawrence, the second largest community in the district. If (and this is a big if) Finegold can win Lawrence convincingly and the Lowell vote is split between two or more candidates, he might be able to clear the low threshold needed to win such a crowded race. Given that Finegold only represents four precincts in Lawrence, however, it seems unlikely that he'd be able to win that city by the margins necessary.