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Fluke or trend? Senate vote may offer hint

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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Scott Brown’s stunning upset over Attorney General Martha Coakley gave Massachusetts Republicans momentum they haven’t seen in a generation or more.

If a relatively unknown Republican state senator could best a statewide officeholder and rising star in the Democratic Party, isn’t anything politically possible?

Whether Brown was a fluke or a trendsetter won’t be known until scores of statewide races are decided in November. But political observers say this spring’s special election to fill Brown’s state Senate seat could be a bellwether and an interesting look at how both parties are dealing with the shifting political landscape.

At Tuesday’s filing deadline, two Democrats and one Republican were in the race for the seat covering parts of Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex counties.

“To continue the momentum that we started with Scott Brown’s win, I think we definitely need to keep this seat in Republican hands, to continue the momentum into November,’’ said Susan Blais, vice chairwoman of the Attleboro Republican City Committee, which she described as one of the most active GOP committees in the state. “I’d say it is of the utmost importance.’’

But local Democrats say momentum can run both ways. Jonathan Saxton, chairman of the Wayland Democratic Town Committee, said the Brown victory changed his outlook too: Now it’s a real fight.

“I actually came away feeling energized by it because we actually have some competition now,’’ he said. “People are paying more attention.’’

State Representative Lida Harkins, a Needham Democrat and former majority whip, will go up against Peter Smulowitz, a Needham Democrat and emergency room physician, in the Democratic primary April 13. The winner will face state Representative Richard Ross, a Wrentham Republican, in the special election May 11.

Leaders of both state parties downplayed the significance of any one race. But Ross said he feels the pressure.

“I do feel I have a bull’s-eye on my back,’’ he said. “I believe it will be a predictor in many ways as to what the fall elections might hold. It’s exciting to be in that position of opportunity.’’

In this race, Republicans have more to lose than Democrats, according to local political scientists.

If GOP candidates lose, “it’s a momentum interrupter,’’ said Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “It breaks that synapse between a Brown victory and a great year for Republicans.’’

Jeff Gulati, associate professor of political sci ence at Bentley University, agreed.

“When you’re looking for resurgence, you don’t want to go backwards at all,’’ he said. “We really want to know if the [US Senate] special election was something unusual. Was it something about Scott Brown and Martha Coakley or something else? Is this part of a larger wave out there? . . . Is this is an indication of a Republican resurgence in New England?’’

Tarah Donoghue, communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, hesitates to put too much emphasis on this one state Senate race because she says her party’s momentum is broader than that.

“All Democrats are vulnerable in 2010,’’ she said. “For the first time in a long time, the wind is at our backs instead of in our faces as Republicans in Massachusetts.’’

Likewise, John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, declined to cast the race as an indicator of things to come. Instead, he said voters will decide on issues like the economy, education, and infrastructure.

Still, Walsh said Republicans have the advantage because this was their seat for six years. If the Republican Party wants to claim momentum, he said, a minimum standard for that assertion should be the ability to hold onto a seat they already had.

“Momentum is a very difficult horse to ride,’’ Walsh said. “To the degree that Republicans are saying they are going to win this coming November based on momentum, that is as unsound a strategy as you can possibly depend on. A much better strategy is to say we’re going to have the best candidate, with the best ideas, with the best effort.’’

The state Senate seat spans a split district with liberal Wayland and Needham in the north and several more conservative communities, such as Attleboro and Wrentham, to the south. Coakley beat Brown in Wayland, Wellesley, Natick, and Needham, even though they were part of Brown’s state Senate district. Brown won in the other eight communities that make up his former district.

The seat’s split personality shows in its history. Cheryl Jacques, considered a liberal Democrat, resigned the seat in 2004, setting up the special election in which Brown beat Jacques’s chief of staff, Angus McQuilken. Jacques won the seat in 1992 by ousting David Locke, the Republican minority whip who had held the seat for decades. Locke was from Wellesley, and the seat was redrawn while Jacques held it.

Blais, the Attleboro Republican, said she has seen small indicators that the energy from the US Senate race persists. Attleboro’s Republican City Committee signed up 10 new members at its last meeting, more than it usually gets in a year, she said, and it has another five new applications for the next meeting.

“Members that are good members but not typically real active really got excited about working on the Scott Brown campaign, and that excitement is still in the air,’’ she said. “And we’re hoping to bottle it and use it for the Richard Ross campaign and the governor’s race.’’

She said she expects even more volunteers to help Ross win the election. That means more people to hold signs, hand out leaflets, and make phone calls, if it comes to that, the same activities that were seen as instrumental in electing Brown.

But Saxton, the Wayland Democrat, said he thinks the Brown victory will translate into more volunteers for his party as well.

“I certainly think we’re going to try to work harder and smarter to win this seat,’’ he said. “When I say ‘smarter,’ I say we’re not going to take anything for granted anymore. Democrats have gotten a wake-up call.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com.

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