For Koh, second time wouldn’t be a charm

No clear path for congressional runner-up in rematch against Trahan

IF DAN KOH runs for Congress in 2020, as there is talk of, it will be the latest proof of that old Boston chestnut, “You can always tell a Harvard man. But you can’t tell him much.” Nothing has happened since his narrow loss in 2018 to make Koh a stronger candidate. Instead, his weaknesses will only be more apparent in a head-to-head rematch against the woman who beat him two years ago.

Koh is understandably smarting from his 145-vote loss to Lori Trahan in the 10-way Democratic primary for the seat vacated by Niki Tsongas. It was an unexpected defeat for Koh, who raised over $3 million and earned endorsements from over 25 labor unions. Koh’s fundraising and organizational juggernaut was powered by his combination of elite educational credentials and practical political experience from his three years as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff. There was a reason, after all, that one profile of his campaign was titled “Is there anything Dan Koh can’t do?”

These advantages almost papered over Koh’s central flaw — he never came up with a solid argument for why voters should support him. This wasn’t entirely his fault, as his central accomplishment of working for Boston’s mayor was hard to sell as a qualification to represent the Merrimack Valley in Congress. Still, Koh would have been far more successful if, somewhere between the fundraising calls and endorsement meetings, he figured out what makes him different from his rivals.

Koh’s announcement video was emblematic of the campaign’s challenges, full of gauzy images but with nothing to say. The 140-second ad featured slogans like “a more perfect union” and “do the work” superimposed over a video of Koh running around his neighborhood. Because this is Massachusetts, “Ask not what you can do for your country” also makes an appearance, devoid of any context besides the need for a gratuitous JFK reference.

Viewers learn nothing about the candidate, except that his great-grandparents were immigrants and he struggled with ADHD. A later television commercial featured the words “jobs,” “healthcare,” and “education” in rapid succession amidst images of Koh hugging people. Another featured the phrases, “Universal health care,” “a fair shot,” and “taking on the gun lobby.” Once again, it could have been used by any Democrat running in any blue state.

Like Koh, Trahan was a political insider, with stints as a top aide to both Congressman Marty Meehan and state Treasurer Tim Cahill, which she leveraged to raise just over $1 million and win endorsements from local legislators and powerful unions like Teamsters Local 25. That’s where the similarities ended.

Trahan effectively connected her middle-class roots in the district, highlighted in advertising through frequent references to her ironworker father and cramped childhood home, with fighting back against Donald Trump on behalf of working people. She combined this appeal to middle-class voters with an argument to upscale, educated women that centered around founding her own business and fighting to keep money out of politics.

If Koh runs again, the difference between the two candidates will be even clearer, and getting elected to the Andover Board of Selectmen, as he did earlier this year, doesn’t do much to expand his political base in the district.

Meanwhile, as an incumbent, Trahan will have tremendous fundraising and organizational advantages. Trahan can add new major donors, and Elizabeth Warren’s recent endorsement shows how much stronger Trahan’s position will be politically as an incumbent. Meanwhile, Marty Walsh will be looking ahead to his own reelection, and will likely be reluctant to play rainmaker for his former chief of staff in a race against a member of the state’s congressional delegation.

The minor campaign finance issue involving Trahan that Koh wants to use as to justify his campaign is the kind of process story that only matters to political insiders. . A winning answer to “Why should I vote for Dan Koh?” isn’t “Lori Trahan commingled her campaign funds with her husband’s money.” That’s the political equivalent of the common cold, hardly a threat to a popular incumbent who hasn’t made any other mistakes since taking office. Trahan has taken away the wedge issue of impeachment by supporting the current inquiry, and an ideological challenge will likely fall on deaf ears in Trahan’s relatively moderate, blue-collar district.

Trahan, whose base is in Lowell where she grew up, has two years to build name recognition, support, and endorsements in the communities where she did poorly. Lawrence, which gave hometown candidate Juana Matias 70 percent of its 9,926 votes in her third-place finish, would be an easy area for Trahan to consolidate support. Voters there will reward Trahan for delivering federal funds to the poor but up-and-coming city, especially if she’s a regular presence at community events alongside the popular mayor.

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Demographics will be against Koh in his potential rematch. Democratic primary electorates have shown a strong preference for women candidates, especially since Donald Trump became president. The last time a woman lost a competitive, Democratic statewide or congressional primary, was in 2006, when Tim Murray defeated Deb Goldberg in the primary for lieutenant governor. To a lot of women voters in the 3rd Congressional District, Koh’s challenge will be seen as a fit of pique directed at a qualified, successful woman.

In 2018, Koh took a huge risk in running for federal office somewhere he hadn’t lived in years. He would have been a shoo-in for a down ballot seat in Boston, but decided to grab for the congressional brass ring. He leveraged his advantages and nearly pulled it off. If he tries again, the outcome will be a lot worse.

Brian Jencunas is a Massachusetts-based Republican speechwriter and political strategist who has consulted for many successful local, municipal, and statewide political candidates, as well as ballot initiatives and independent expenditure groups.