Most of the nation is happy to have a respite from the mindless sloganeering, frightening attack ads, and insincere smiles that invade their homes every four years during the quadrennial American ritual of electing a president. For those Americans who buck the trend and crave electioneering like heroin junkie seeking a fix, the special election in Massachusetts for John Kerry’s former Senate seat has been a gift from God.
Massachusetts Democrats enjoy a 3 to 1 advantage in voter registration and have won 73 of the 75 statewide elections held since 2000. This makes the Democratic primary, pitting Representative Stephen Lynch against fellow Representative Ed Markey, the race’s most important contest, since whoever wins it will be heavily favored to win the general election.
Ed Markey raised eyebrows on Thursday when he compared the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United to their ruling in Dred Scott. Despite this gaffe, Markey will emerge victorious in the primary barring divine intervention for Congressman Lynch.
Although a primary between two sitting congressmen may seem like an even match up on paper, the only real question is how much Ed Markey will win by. Lynch simply has too many headwinds blowing against him — his record on abortion issues cannot pass liberal litmus tests, his base of support is too small, and Markey is supported by a who’s who of Massachusetts politicians and interest groups.
In this election, Steven Lynch isn’t simply running against Ed Markey. Rather, he is running against the entire Democratic political establishment.
Within hours of Markey announcing his candidacy, he was endorsed by Vikki Kennedy, outgoing Senator John Kerry, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Since then, he has added the support of Barney Frank, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the Sierra Club, the influential liberal blog DailyKos, and the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association. These endorsements don’t just mean good, boldface copy for campaign literature. Since many of Markey’s supporters are long-time Massachusetts politicos, they can lend the congressman their campaign organizations, which will save Markey valuable time in trying to build relationships with activists outside his district.
Lynch, on the other hand, will need to put together a campaign organization himself, and he’ll need to it quickly since the primary is on April 20. Assembling a statewide organization out of thin air is an arduous task, and at the very least will consume campaign funds that could be spent purchasing advertising.
To his credit, Lynch does enjoy a strong base of support among private sector labor unions. A former iron-worker and one-time President of Ironworkers Local 7, Lynch has had a strong connection with organized labor throughout his entire political career. As Steven Tolman, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO said, “[Lynch] has an awful lot of long-term commitments and friendships in labor. We grew up with him.”
A generation ago, in the era of lunch-pail Democrats like Tip O’Neill and Ray Flynn, AFL-CIO support could very well have propelled Lynch to victory. But those days are over, and the political power within organized labor lies with government unions, rather than their private sector counterparts. As evidenced by the MTA, government unions are expected to support Markey, which will more than cancel out the votes Lynch can muster from his fellow tradesmen.
Even if he had a broader political base, and Markey didn’t have the support of everybody in the Democratic establishment whose support is worth having, Lynch still wouldn’t have a prayer come primary day. Lynch is simply too conservative on the issue of abortion for a Democratic primary in Massachusetts, where fealty to the pro-choice party line is a litmus test akin to being pro-life in a Kansas Republican primary.
In a PPP poll which showed Markey with a 30 point lead over Lynch, 70% of those surveyed said they would be less likely to support a candidate with an "anti-choice record." While Markey has had a perfect rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League since 1996, Lynch has voted for pro-life legislation 38% of time during his 11 years in Congress. While a state legislator, Lynch led efforts to ban late term abortions and consistently opposed laws that prevented protesters from picketing abortion clinics. Among pro-choice true believers, Lynch’s 2003 vote to ban intact dilation and extraction abortions is enough to disqualify him as a candidate.
If Lynch gets any traction, Markey just needs to realize one campaign commercial to kill his chances. The ad would start with a scary-looking photo of Steve Lynch and then play some old sound clips of him speaking against abortion. Next, the commercial transitions into a grainy photograph of Todd Akin while a narrator says, “Women’s rights are under attack now more than ever. Can Massachusetts really afford a Senator who votes with extreme Republicans like Todd Akin?” Then the commercial cuts to a generic-looking middle aged woman who says, “With what’s going on in Washington these days, I need a senator who will fight for my rights. That’s why I’m voting for Ed Markey, because I know he’ll side with women over Republican extremists.” With that commercial airing heavily for a few days, Lynch’s poll numbers would plummet 10 points.
To give Lynch credit where credit is due, he has been the underdog in every primary he has won. For State Senate, he defeated the son of longtime Senate President Billy Bulger, who was widely expected to inherit the seat his father had held for decades. For Congress, Lynch defeated three better-known state legislators despite trailing them in fundraising throughout the election.
But this race is a different animal. Those elections were all small enough that Lynch’s skill at retail politics could give him a real advantage over opponents who were less adapt at the art of grip and grin. This election is statewide, meaning it will be decided mainly by voter turnout and advertising. Markey’s endorsements give him the turnout edge, and Lynch’s record on abortion is tailor-made for the aforementioned devastating attack ad.
Ironically, Lynch's moderation would make him a much stronger candidate than Markey for a general election. But in competing for votes from a staunchly partisan primary electorate, that strength is a fatal weakness. So for the sake of his career, Lynch should start practicing introducing Ed Markey at campaign rallies. After April, that will be the closest he gets to running for Senate.