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Packed field changes game for Democrats

Many in Mass. seek House seats

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 7, 2010

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Most members of Massachusetts’ overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation are not accustomed to much of a challenge when they come up for reelection. But this year the old assumptions don’t apply, providing a greater sense of urgency to the Fourth of July picnics and neighborhood political forums.

By last week’s filing deadline, 37 candidates qualified to run in primaries for the state’s 10 seats in the US House of Representatives, twice as many challengers as in recent years. That includes 24 candidates on the Republican side alone — meaning a party that has often had trouble fielding even a single candidate will now have some crowded and competitive primaries.

Just one House seat, held by Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, is uncontested. Two Democratic incumbents, South Boston’s Stephen F. Lynch and Newton’s Barney Frank, are facing opponents in both the primary and, if they survive that round, in the general election in November.

The races are following what is, by now, a much-discussed national trend. Incumbents are more threatened than usual, even from members of their own party, as voters worry about their economic security.

And Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the US Senate special election in January has emboldened more in the GOP to test the odds, which have generally been long for that party in Massachusetts. (Neither US Senate seat in Massachusetts is at stake this November).

The 2010 election features double the number of House candidates than have run in other election years this decade. Even 1990 and 1994, active years in state and national elections, had fewer candidates qualifying for the primary ballot, though it is not yet clear who among this year’s candidates can raise enough money and marshal enough volunteer support to mount serious challenges.

“The best thing that happened to our ability to win was Scott Brown winning in January,’’ said Jeffrey D. Perry, a state representative from Sandwich who is running in a four-way Republican primary for the seat being vacated by William D. Delahunt.

“His victory created an understanding that Republicans can win, even in Massachusetts.’’

Perry has studied the Senate election carefully, quickly noting that Brown won 59.6 percent of the vote in the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Quincy to Cape Cod and the islands.

Perry’s chief primary opponent, former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone, said voters do not seem caught up in the national struggle over which party controls the House or the Senate. Instead, they are anxious about their own future, their children’s futures, and the nation’s future, more deeply than in past elections, he said.

“It’s really about personal anxiety and fear,’’ he said.

Nationally, the race for Delahunt’s seat — an open one that has also drawn two Democrats — is attracting the most attention among the state’s races because it is a potential Republican pick-up. The party is also targeting seats held by Niki Tsongas, the Lowell Democrat who narrowly won a special election three years ago, and Frank, whose outspoken liberal positions have made him a favorite for rallying the GOP base.

Despite the increase in activity, Massachusetts is still considered a fairly reliable Democratic base.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers nine of the state’s 10 congressional seats “solid D’’ in its most recent round-up, updated May 24. Only Delahunt’s former seat is labeled a toss-up.

“Republicans don’t have many opportunities in House races because Democrats have drawn most districts to be fortresses,’’ said Dave Wasserman, House editor for the report, citing the Legislature’s ability to shape congressional districts every 10 years.

But even if they do not pick up seats in Massachusetts, Republicans say their very presence in all but one race will hold incumbents more accountable than usual, and further the process of rebuilding the party that was wounded in the last two national elections.

“Let’s be honest, realistically we see all these races as very challenging for Republicans,’’ said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. But “in this environment, they should all be running scared. They may actually have to talk to voters before Election Day.’’

Democrats say they are prepared for the scrutiny and expect their candidates to be just as busy at the grass-roots level as Republicans. While some concede they are happy to run unopposed, they say elections give them a forum to discuss their accomplishments with constituents.

“It’s actually a pretty good cleansing,’’ said Capuano, who ran unsuccessfully for US Senate in the fall but will not face an opponent for his congressional seat, “when there’s a change in the guard, when people are awake, when they fight for their seats again.’’

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who has spent 34 years in Congress, said he is used to speaking at graduations and local committee meetings, and reeled off several months’ worth of events he has attended this year.

He has no primary opponent, but is waiting to see which of the two Republican candidates vying to face him will emerge.

“There are more Republicans running, but I think their level of success is going to be limited,’’ Markey said. “The Democratic Party is working hard. You can see it in Deval Patrick’s poll numbers and in the declining unemployment numbers.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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