Massachusetts’ U.S. House Race Shows Power of the Primary

The next U.S. House member from Massachusetts’ 5th congressional district could be a Democrat backed by women, or a different one backed by labor, or a third candidate supported by gay groups. Bottom line, barring an upset, it will be a Democrat.

Voters today will nominate candidates to fill a seat vacated by former Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat elected in a June special election to the U.S. Senate. It’s a primary contest with oversized importance and a template for how other open-seat races will play out this week in New Jersey and Louisiana, as well as in the 2014 midterm elections.

Of the 18 districts where House members aren’t seeking re-election next year, the outcome in as many as 16 are likely to be determined in the primary after voters in them showed a partisan preference by backing a presidential nominee by a margin of at least 12 percentage points last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In Massachusetts, President Barack Obama won the 5th district in 2012 with 65 percent of the vote, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren took 59 percent in winning a U.S. Senate seat. That Democratic dominance will create a significant disadvantage for the Republican nominee in the Dec. 10 election to fill Markey’s seat.

“Instead of the Democrats fighting the Republicans, these races carve the parties into niche groups to establish bases of support,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Washington-based Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group that tracks races. “We see few compromise-oriented people emerge from these types of primaries.”

Little Competition

As next year’s elections near, the number of open House seat races likely will expand and could include some that are more competitive. Still, the redrawing of boundaries of the 435 House districts after the 2010 census winnowed the list of swing districts. About three dozen House seats are competitive at this time, according to the Cook Report.

The result is that more contests require candidates to stand out amid a familiar field and build support with intra-party factions to win in the primary rather than reaching out to independent voters and those from the other party in a general election.

During a televised debate among five of the seven Democratic candidates in the current Massachusetts race, only one -- state Senator William Brownsberger, 56 -- said he would be willing to negotiate with Republicans on raising the federal debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown.

“When push comes to shove, are you going to let it go over the cliff?” he asked, referring to the fiscal standoff in Congress. “I want to be part of the solution. I don’t know what the solution is. We have to avoid a default.”

No Endorsements

Brownsberger is the only competitive Democratic candidate in the race lacking a major endorsement from a prominent Massachusetts office-holder or a national group.

Four other candidates have attracted attention from labor unions, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, top state lawmakers and EMILY’s List, a Washington-based group that supports Democratic women who back abortion rights.

“The groups have been in here and they are duking it out,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

“The candidates are all going to be voting exactly the same in Washington,” he said. “The question is where will they put the most time and attention? That is why you see these groups really interested.”

‘Tremendous Boost’

EMILY’s List supports state Senator Katherine Clark, 50, who is leading in the polls. The group’s backing “was really a tremendous boost,” Clark said in an interview after a campaign event in Cambridge.

Outside interest groups gravitate to such primaries because they can have greater impact than in a general election.

“If you only need to get a primary candidate to 30 percent, it’s enough to win,” in a multi-contender race in states such as Massachusetts without runoffs if none get more than 50 percent of the vote, said Nathan Gonzales of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, which also tracks races.

The Progressive Democrats of America, an organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is urging candidates to embrace its anti-war stances and opposition to big corporations.

“We will admit it, we are not the mainstream,” said Michael Fox, the group’s fundraising director, said in a telephone interview. “We were the mainstream in 1968.”

‘Massachusetts Liberal’

In the 5th district race, the group backs state Representative Carl Sciortino, 35, who is gay and aired an attention-getting ad in which he “comes out” to his father, a member of the small-government Tea Party movement, as a “Massachusetts liberal.”

Sciortino, whose contributors include the Washington-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, challenged the other candidates to join him in opposing military strikes in Syria. He collected an endorsement from Dennis Kucinich, a former House Democrat from Ohio who in 2002 voted against the Iraq invasion.

State Senator Karen Spilka, 60, touts her 35 labor endorsements and tells voters about her tough upbringing, including when her father forced her and her sister into boxing gloves to settle squabbles.

“That is what has made me a fighter,” she said. “I won’t back down,” she said to voters at a Columbus Day Breakfast on Oct. 13 in Revere.

She said today’s victor will go to Washington no matter which of the three Republican candidates prevail in their party’s primary. “I do think the outcome of this race will be the next congressperson,” said Spilka.

New Jersey

One need look no further than New Jersey to see a similar dynamic. The state’s voters tomorrow are expected to elect Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, to the U.S. Senate, if public polling and recent history holds. An Oct. 10-12 poll released yesterday by Monmouth University, based in West Long Branch, New Jersey, showed Booker, 44, holding a 10-point lead, 52 percent to 42 percent, over Republican Steven Lonegan.

Obama won the Garden State by 18 points in the 2012 election, the president’s ninth-biggest margin of victory among the 26 states he carried. Democrats have won 13 consecutive Senate races in New Jersey dating to 1976. The primary contest in August drew 366,639 Democratic voters, about three times the 128,949 who voted in the Republican primary.

Louisiana Republicans

Thirteen hundred miles (2,091 kilometers) away, Republican groups are engaging in Louisiana’s 5th congressional district. Voters will go to the polls Oct. 19 to winnow a field of 14 candidates in an open primary, said John Maginnis, the founder of LaPolitics, a Baton Rouge-based political newsletter. Five of the contenders are Republicans, four are Democrats, and another five represent third-parties.

Under the Louisiana primary system, any voter, regardless of party registration, can cast a ballot for any of the 14 candidates. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a Nov. 16 runoff between.

“There are three well-financed Republicans who are seen as fighting for the two runoff spots,” Maginnis said. “The Democrats have a pretty outside chance of landing a spot.”

Citizens United, A Washington-based group “dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control,” according to its website, is backing Republican state Senator Neil Riser, 51. Phil Robertson, a star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, a reality television show about the family operating a Louisiana-based business catering to duck hunters, supports Republican Vance McAllister, 39.

“All the Republicans have been running to the right,” Maginnis said. “The campaign is ’Who can be the most anti-Obama?’”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.