Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Massachusetts Primary Results and Lessons

Massachusetts had its congressional primaries yesterday. I put down some predictions, and I'm decently pleased with my performance. I nailed Markey/Kennedy (I said Markey would win by around 10 points, and he won by a 55/45 margin). I got the winners right in the MA-01 and -08 races, but I thought both might be closer than they were. Rep. Richard Neal beat Alex Morse by a 59-41 margin (essentially the same spread as Ilhan Omar over Antoine Melton-Meaux a few weeks ago), and Rep. Stephen Lynch beat challenger Robbie Goldstein 67-33.

So what did we learn?

Begin with the Senate race. From what I saw, Markey overperformed in college-educated, relatively affluent and disproportionately White suburban centers while Kennedy's base was in working class and minority areas of the state. That actually isn't that surprising, given how progressive politics has been playing out over the past few years, but it does clash with some of the self-image of the progressive left which very much sees itself as being the voice of the most down-trodden. Take from that what you will.

Likewise, I'm beginning to see at least a few progressive activists say that their support of Ed Markey is proof that they're not purity-obsessed compromise-averse zealots, since, after all, Markey had his share of heresies in his history (the Iraq War vote being a major one). But he was improving, and he courted their support, and it was important that this sort of behavior be rewarded even if wasn't perfect. And I agree! That's a great lesson and one I hope the left internalizes!

But for now, it still seems to be a lesson that is at best inconsistently applied. There's an alternative universe, after all, where Ed Markey -- forty year congressional veteran, Iraq War supporter, backed by Chuck Schumer, Mike Bloomberg, and the DSCC -- is very much viewed as the quintessential "establishment" candidate who leveraged his insider advantages against the youthful upstart promising to shake things up and harken back to old school Great Society liberalism. Indeed, at the very start of the race that was the narrative Joe Kennedy was very much trying to push. It is to Markey's credit as a campaigner that he managed to turn this story on its head. But the fact is that Kennedy and Markey really don't have that different voting records from one another; and there are countless examples where "voting history akin to Ed Markey's" + "support from Michael Bloomberg" = "irrefutable proof of being part of the Deep Establishment". There's more than a bit of arbitrariness that Markey managed to avoid that label.

Perhaps the best thing Markey had going for him was that, orthodox Democratic voting record notwithstanding, he was warm and welcoming of the progressive wing of the party. There's a good lesson there too: being nice works! People like it when you're nice to them. That may seem banal, but there's a branch of progressive political activism that is very committed to the view that the only way to gain and wield political power is via incessant attacks and ruthless "shoot the hostage" bargaining ("the corrupt neoliberal Democratic Party won't listen to us unless we stop voting for them"). In reality, another good way to curry influence is to build good relationships with those you want to influence; and a good way to lose influence is to be openly antipathic to your nominal targets. This is why the Sanders strategy of "running against the Democratic Party in a Democratic primary" was doomed to fail. Markey, by contrast, built positive relationships both with the Green New Deal and "Squad" types, as well as plenty of more "establishment" oriented politicians. That paid off, big time. But once again, the lesson isn't being internalized -- check out the replies to Elizabeth Warren (who endorsed Markey) uttering some generic boilerplate niceties to Joe Kennedy after his defeat. One would think "having already won, there's no reason to actively antagonize a perfectly decent politician who just got 45% in her own state's primary" wouldn't be controversial. But you'd be wrong.

Finally, with respect to Kennedy himself, I stand by my initial assessment that his challenge was needless fratricide. Kennedy isn't a bad guy, and his record as a congressperson is perfectly solid. But there wasn't any clear reason for his campaign other than "I want to be a bigger deal than I am now", and that's not a good basis for a primary challenge. Once again, there should be a very strong presumption that Democratic Party energies are better spent fighting Republicans than other Democrats. Kennedy violated that presumption and so I'm glad he lost.

Over on the House side, I said that I thought Morse's "scandal" probably helped him more than it hurt him, but that this prediction wasn't really falsifiable. That remains true, but I think his wider-than-anticipated defeat does emphasize that the progressive-insurgent model really is struggling to gain traction outside dense urban districts. There's a good case that Stephen Lynch -- who's probably more conservative than Richard Neal and represents a far more urbanized district -- would make for a better target of progressive energies. The fact that Lynch didn't do that much better than Neal (taking 67% versus 59%) despite facing a far lower-profile candidate suggests there might be more room to run in the former district.

Lastly, there was one race, the 4th district primary (to replace Joe Kennedy) where I didn't venture a prediction because the field was a giant 9-way cluster**** and I didn't have time to even try to figure out what's going on. Election day verified that impulse -- the race hasn't been called, five candidates are in double-digits, and at the moment less than 1,500 votes separate first place (Jake Auchincloss, 22.4%) from second place (Jesse Mermell, 21.4%). Still, while the race hasn't been officially called, most observers seem to think Auchincloss -- who ran as a moderate and used to work for Republican Governor Charlie Baker -- will hold onto his lead and become the Democratic nominee.

Of course, a race this close immediately raises questions about what will happen come 2022. On the one hand, next cycle Auchincloss almost certainly won't benefit from a wildly fractured field splitting the progressive vote. On the other hand, he will benefit from being an incumbent. As Rashida Tlaib just showed, the entrenching effect of the latter can easily wipe away apparent vulnerability implied by the former even after a single election cycle. I suspect that once in Congress Auchincloss will work to lock down his progressive bona fides and will be able to hold onto his seat for awhile. But it is well within the realm of possibility that Joe Kennedy's ill-fated Senate run meant that a safe Democratic seat just got a much more conservative representative.

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