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5 Takeaways From The Mass. Primary Election

Ayanna Pressley addresses supporters celebrating her primary win. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Ayanna Pressley addresses supporters celebrating her primary win. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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Politics in the Bay State matter. Maybe it’s because our politicians like to run for president (Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Mitt Romney to name but a few — with perhaps as many as five in 2020). Maybe we’re seen as a bellwether. Or perhaps we’re just so full of ourselves we think everyone else cares when in truth they don’t. In any event, herewith a few observations in the aftermath of the Massachusetts primaries.

Not all incumbents lost. Tuesday’s primaries — at least on the Democratic side — are being read as something epic, a dramatic break from the past. “Massachusetts politics is changing,” opined the Boston Globe’s editorial board. “Candidates aren’t willing to wait their turn anymore. The power of incumbency is weakening.” Aside from the fact that these words sound curiously like the opening monologue of "The Lord of the Rings" (“The world is changed…”), there’s reason to be skeptical. The hyperbole notwithstanding, incumbents did very well. Longtime Secretary of State William Galvin handily defeated upstart Josh Zakim. U.S. Rep. Steve Lynch readily fended off two foes. State Rep. Liz Malia easily bested her challenger. Indeed, the vast majority of pols — at all levels — faced no meaningful competition at all, including the attorney general, treasurer, auditor, most members of Congress and most state legislators. The three felled incumbents — Michael Capuano, and state Reps. Byron Rushing and Jeffrey Sanchez — were the exceptions, not the rule.

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano greets supporters outside of Trum Field in Somerville after he voted. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano greets supporters outside of Trum Field in Somerville after he voted. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Marty Walsh should be very afraid. Ayanna Pressley won her unexpected congressional victory despite Boston Mayor Marty Walsh endorsing incumbent Michael Capuano and despite Walsh’s machine pulling out the stops to re-elect the congressman. He looks weak and Pressley owes him nothing. Maybe Pressley will love being a member of Congress, but my guess is the experience will wear thin: Power in D.C. is connected to seniority and that requires exceptional patience. So why not run for mayor? The position is up in 2021. It is, as late Mayor Tom Menino once told me, “The best job in politics.” Judging by the primary’s exceptionally high turnout, Pressley may well be the most popular politician in the city. The majority-minority demographics that drove Pressley’s success equally apply to a mayor’s race. She’s well-versed in bread and butter local issues (e.g. liquor license reform) that are better addressed at the city level than the federal level. And best of all, Pressley can take a shot at the job without giving up her congressional seat — Boston elections are held in odd years while congressional elections are in even.

Capuano did better in 2018 than when he first won the seat — but he still lost. Capuano first won his seat in 1998, in a crowded field of 10. (It’s a race I remember well; I was one of those 10.) Back then, he won just 23 percent of the vote, but that was enough to give him a plurality — and since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the general election was just an afterthought. Until Pressley came along two decades later, Capuano had never faced a serious one-on-one primary challenger. It’s a lesson for the 3rd Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Niki Tsongas. That race, too, had a 10-person field of challengers. The winner (and right now, it’s either Lori Trahan or Daniel Koh) will get the job with less than 22 percent of the vote. How would either fare in a one-on-one race with a credible primary challenger? Capuano was able to wait 20 years before finding out the unhappy answer to that question. Memo to aspiring pols in the 3rd district: There’s no reason to wait so long.

Geoff Diehl and his wife KathyJo Boss, center, greet a supporter after his Republican U.S. Senate primary win. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Geoff Diehl and his wife KathyJo Boss, center, greet a supporter after his Republican U.S. Senate primary win. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Elizabeth Warren is now free to focus on 2020. Republicans had a field of three candidates vying to take on Warren. In Geoff Diehl, they chose the weakest of the three. Diehl is a state rep and hardcore Donald Trump supporter in a state that intensely dislikes the president. For Warren, this is a godsend; she’s now a certainty to win re-election. She can safely ignore Diehl, spending the rest of the campaign season raising her national profile as she eyes the presidency. Meanwhile, Diehl’s win (and the surprisingly strong showing of Scott Lively against Gov. Charlie Baker) also speaks to the continuing and growing irrelevance of the GOP in the Bay State. Yeah, Baker’s governor — but largely because he presents as a moderate Democrat. Only 10.4 percent of all voters are registered Republicans (Democrats are three times as many), meaning the party increasingly looks like an asterisk.

Charlie Baker is a lock for re-election. Unless he isn’t. Baker is the most popular governor the world has ever known. (OK, slight exaggeration. But he’s still the nation’s most popular governor right now.) And as of its most recent filing, the Baker Committee has $6.3 million while Jay Gonzalez — winner of a lackluster Democratic primary — has only $188,000. Obvious conclusion: Baker should coast. But. But. But. Donald Trump is president and the leader of Baker’s party. One could see the deep and passionate anti-Trump animus in Massachusetts easily spilling over to a more local race. And Gonzalez is actually a credible, serious and qualified candidate. He served as the secretary of administration & finance during the Patrick administration — the same job on which Baker cut his political teeth in the Weld and Cellucci administrations. Sure, the smart money is on Baker. But then again, that’s what many said about Capuano.

Campaign boards outside the Adams Street Library in Dorchester. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Campaign boards outside the Adams Street Library in Dorchester. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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