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Election season goes into top gear

3 gubernatorial rivals, legislative hopefuls run hard

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / September 6, 2010

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Amid deep voter anxiety about the economy, Massachusetts is heading into a fall campaign season that could set a new course for state politics and send a host of fresh faces to Beacon Hill and beyond.

This week kicks off a two-month sprint toward Election Day, a period of politicking, campaigning, and voter-courting that is shaping up to be the most intense — and most unusual — in years.

The highest-profile race is the tight contest for control of the governor’s office, with Governor Deval Patrick and his two major challengers, Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill, expected to spend millions on media blitzes to get voters’ attention. Baker and Cahill already have a heavy presence on the airwaves, and Patrick is expected to join them shortly.

But, for the first time in two decades, Republicans are also mounting spirited challenges to win at least two key constitutional offices and take several seats in the state’s all-Democrat congressional delegation. And GOP leaders are looking to gain legislative seats for the first time since 1990, in a wide open race for the state House and Senate following a spate of retirements.

This fall is highly unusual in two other respects: Despite the heightened in terest in politics, it is one of the only cycles in decades that the state primaries, set for Sept. 14, do not feature a competition for a gubernatorial nomination. And Cahill, having bolted the Democratic Party last year, is mounting the first viable independent candidacy for the corner office in modern history, though polls suggest he remains stuck in third place.

The election will also test the political endurance of Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the US Senate race in January. That stunning upset energized Republicans and has forced Democrats at all levels to scramble to hold their lines. The GOP, which has been marginalized for years on Beacon Hill and not been a presence in the congressional delegations since 1996, is eager for a sequel.

“This is a historic opportunity for Republicans to restore two-party competition in this state,’’ said Todd Domke, a veteran Republican analyst. “The conditions are just as ripe now as they were for Scott Brown. It will determine if there is an even bigger wave in this election and in 2012.’’

“I am not sure it is historical, yet,’’ said House Majority Leader James Vallee, a Franklin Democrat. “I wouldn’t use that word. But I certainly think the potential for incumbents to lose is certainly there.’’

Indeed, a strong anti-incumbent mood among the national electorate that is threatening Democratic control of Congress has shaken the party here in Massachusetts. Internal polls by Democratic candidates show deep pessimism over the direction of the state. Voters’ perceptions of Patrick, while far better than they were a few months ago, are dangerously low for an incumbent governor. Virtually unknown Republicans are posing serious challengers to incumbent veteran Democrats.

Still, state Democratic leaders are not convinced they are facing the sort of tidal wave that many predict will hit the party across the country.

They note that Massachusetts is recovering from the recession more quickly than most other states, and they believe the Legislature and Patrick have a record of government changes, including key issues of education and state pensions, and have proven themselves to be competent stewards of state finances.

The Democrats are counting, in part, on their theory that Brown’s election is not a predictor of November results. They note that it was the only high-profile race in the country at the time, and thus attracted the kind of attention and dollars from conservatives that will be impossible during this busy mid-term season.

State Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat first elected in 1992, said voters he meets on the campaign trail are expressing frustration about the sluggish economic recovery. But, he said, many are highly discerning and will not be looking to punish all incumbents. “I’ve run a number of races where voters have been savvy enough to look at each race and what it means to them,’’ said Straus, noting that he won reelection in the past when Republicans were elected governor.

This year’s US House races in Massachusetts could be notably competitive. One of the most closely watched is the contest for the 10th District seat, whose incumbent, Democrat William Delahunt, is retiring.

Norfolk District Attorney William Keating and state Senator Robert O’Leary are battling for the Democratic nomination. State Representative Jeffrey Perry, former state treasurer Joseph Malone, and two others are vying for the Republican nod.

Some national observers believe the rest of the seats are safe bets to remain in Democratic hands, but Republicans are hot to pick off an incumbent US representative, and several of them — including Niki Tsongas, James McGovern, and Barney Frank — have active challengers.

The gubernatorial race is shaping up to be largely a referendum on Patrick, who was elected by a healthy margin in 2006 after running a strong grass-roots campaign. He faces a strong challenge from Baker, a former health insurance executive and a top state official under two Republican governors in the 1990s.

A new poll Friday showed Patrick maintaining a slim lead over his GOP rival.

Though a distant third in the polls, Cahill, the state treasurer, remains an x-factor, and Republicans are worried about him spoiling Baker’s chance for victory.

Cahill, the first independent to be running with a high public profile, having won statewide office twice, has enough money to remain competitive on TV. Green-Rainbow party candidate Jill Stein, who got 3.5 percent of the vote in her run for governor in 2002, is also in the race.

Since the last gubernatorial election in 2006, the number of independent or third-party candidates in Massachusetts has increased significantly. Four years ago, two independents and a Socialist Workers Party candidate challenged the all-Democrat US House delegation. This year there are 10 independents running for congressional seats.

Similarly, four years ago, 14 independent or third-party candidates ran for the state Legislature. This year there are 36.

Whether Patrick will be swallowed up by an anti-incumbent backlash is not clear.

Six months ago, few Democratic leaders gave him a chance of winning reelection. But the governor has given the party hope by returning to the campaign trail with vigor, criss-crossing the state to politick, improving his fund-raising markedly, trumpeting his record in office, and appearing to restore his connection to party activists.

Baker is hoping his experience in managing the state’s fiscal affairs during the strong economic years of the 1990s, and the credit he gets for saving Harvard Pilgrim Health Care from bankruptcy a decade ago, will play well among voters hungry for fresh leadership on Beacon Hill.

He attacks Patrick for raising taxes, for not adding more jobs and hurting the business climate, and for failing to fully address problems such as the crippling cost of municipal health care.

Brian C. Mooney of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com

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