Few GOP challengers in races for Legislature
Democrats assured of control despite patronage issue
Even as Beacon Hill Democrats weather a patronage scandal that has many worried about potential indictments, nearly three-quarters of incumbent Democrats will face no Republican opposition in the fall.
Of the 155 Democrats running for reelection to the 200-member Legislature, just 42 will face Republican challengers in November, according to tallies by both parties.
The dearth of Republican challengers guarantees that Democrats will continue to wield firm control of the State House next year, even as the party braces for fallout from multiple investigations into patronage at the state Probation Department.
Two years ago, Republicans more than doubled their numbers in the House, from 15 to 31, a rare bright spot for a party that lost elections higher up on the ticket: for governor, Congress, state treasurer, and state auditor.
This year, Democratic Party officials are running candidates against 14 of the Republican freshmen in hope of winning back those seats and tightening their grip on power.
Republicans have not recruited enough candidates to make Democrats worry about losing their veto-proof majority in both chambers.
“The number where they can make our incumbents sweat are really a handful,” said Kevin Franck, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
Republican Party officials say their goal is to hold on to the seats they won in 2010 and perhaps pick up a few. They say that although Republicans usually face an uphill battle in Massachusetts, they face a particularly stiff challenge in a year when President Obama is expected to drive up Democratic turnout in November.
“It’s tough in a presidential year; that gives the wind at the sails for the Democrats,” said Peter Blute, deputy chairman of the state Republican Party. “But with our good candidates and our strong incumbents, we’re going to surprise.”
Republicans have not held a majority in either chamber of the Massachusetts Legislature since the 1950s.
The last time Republicans mounted a serious attack on Democratic rule was in 2004, when Governor Mitt Romney recruited 131 Republicans to run for the House and Senate. But Republicans ended up losing seats that year, suggesting it might be better for the party to target a few key races, rather than spread candidates across Massachusetts.
This year, 73 Republicans are running for the Legislature, down from 95 in 2010.
Theories abound as to why so few Republicans are challenging Democratic incumbents this year. Some say the Tea Party energy that fueled many Republican candidates in 2010 has dissipated. Some say the state GOP is focused more on reelecting Senator Scott Brown and electing Richard R. Tisei to Congress. Others say potential challengers were scared off by the prospect of facing a Democrat in a presidential election year.
Democrats hold the most lopsided advantage in the state Senate, where Republicans control only four of the 40 seats. Of the 33 Democrats seeking reelection in the Senate, only nine face Republican opposition in November.
Of the 122 incumbent Democrats in the House, just over a quarter, 33, face GOP challengers. A handful of Democrats in both chambers will face challengers in the Democratic primary in September.
Blute said he was frustrated that the vast majority of Democrats will cruise to reelection without a challenge from the Republican Party.
“They don’t call this the bluest of blue states for nothing,” he said.
In the state’s US House delegation, where Democrats hold all seats, six of the nine Democrats seeking reelection will face Republican challengers in November. But political analysts say only two races, at most, are expected to be competitive: the Sixth District, where Tisei, a former Republican leader of the state Senate, is challenging US Representative John F. Tierney, and the Fourth District, where incumbent Barney Frank’s retirement will leave Republicans to select from Sean Bielat, Elizabeth Childs, and David Steinhof in their primary to face Joseph P. Kennedy III.
In the Legislature, Republicans are focused on a few competitive races this fall. The biggest prize would be an upset victory in the South Shore seat currently held by Senate President Therese Murray. She faces a potential rematch with Republican Tom Keyes, a former Sandwich selectman who came close to ousting her in 2010.
In the state House, Republicans could pick up 3 to 5 seats, said Rob Eno, who runs the conservative blog Red Mass Group and closely watches legislative races. That would position the party for bigger gains in 2014, when the lack of a presidential election means that Democrats will not have as big an advantage in turnout, he said.
“It is not out of the realm of possibility that we could double our seats again in 2014, especially if these probation indictments come out,” Eno said.
Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, is among those who have been targeted by the state Republican Party this year. She is set to face Marty Lamb, a Holliston lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged US Representative James P. McGovern in 2010.
Dykema said 60 percent of the voters in her district supported Brown in 2010, making her seat a tantalizing contest for Republicans.
“I always expect to have a Republican opponent, just because my district leans more conservative,” she said. “The fact that other people don’t have opponents, I would suggest, is because they’re doing at least a decent job representing their constituents.”
John Walsh, chairman of the state Democratic Party, agreed, though he insisted that the party is not taking its dominance for granted.
“It’s overwhelmingly because the Democratic legislators are doing a recognizably great job,” he said, pointing to the state’s 6 percent unemployment rate. “There’s a sense of satisfaction.”