Dems, GOP battle over timing of Senate election

As stalemate continues, both sides dig in


THE DECISION ABOUT when to hold a special election for an open Senate seat has suddenly become a major point of contention between the Democrat and Republican parties in Massachusetts.

Senate President Karen Spilka earlier this week proposed holding the general election for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Viriato deMacedo on March 3, with the primary on February 4. The Senate’s Republican leader, Sen. Bruce Tarr, has refused to go along, effectively blocking the measure from coming to a vote during informal sessions in the Senate. Tarr favors holding the primary for the Senate seat on March 3 and the general election on March 31.

The timing is key for political and practical reasons. March 3 is the date of the presidential primary in Massachusetts, and Republicans, eager to hang on to the seat, are worried that their party’s candidate for the Senate seat will get swamped by what is expected to be heavy Democratic turnout to vote for a Democratic challenger to President Trump.

But Democrats say holding the Senate primary on March 3 will create confusion at the polls and cause long waits. If the primary is the same date as the presidential primary, independent voters will have to choose which party’s ballot to take in each race and local clerks will have to keep two sets of books. But if the general election for the state Senate is the same day as the presidential primary, voters will receive one ballot for the Senate race and choose a party ballot for the presidential primary.

The race for deMacedo’s former seat is likely to be competitive. He has represented Plymouth, Kingston, Pembroke, Bourne, Falmouth, and Sandwich the Senate for the past five years, and before that, former Democratic Senate President Therese Murray held the seat for decades.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Massachusetts GOP chair Jim Lyons, who don’t agree about much, both agree with Tarr. Secretary of State William Galvin, the state’s chief election officer and a Democrat, is backing Spilka’s approach.

“I think you’ll get a much better turnout in the primary if you have the primary election for the Democrats on the same day as the presidential Democrat primary and the same day as the Republican primary, and then the two candidates that win that can face off against each other in a single day election where they’re the only two people on the ballot,” Baker said. “I think that would be the more appropriate way to do it.”

Galvin said that Tarr’s objections are a concerted effort to drive down electoral participation.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Galvin said. “If you’re fighting about the amount of time but you constantly delay the process, you’re getting the achieved goal you wish, which is a delayed election and suppressed voter turnout. That’s what this is about. This is about Republican voter suppression, simply put. They don’t want large voter turnout because they fear voter turnout.”

Tarr said he was “stunned” to hear Galvin’s argument that voters would be confused by two primary elections being held on the same day.

“I think he needs to carefully review the situation and, frankly, I’m surprised by any analysis that suggests that trying to increase the time for voters to get involved in the process is voter suppresion,” Tarr said. “And, frankly, I’m a bit stunned by the suggestion that this causes voter confusion. I think voters would be much less confused by two primaries on the same day than a general and a primary.”

Tarr said he believed turnout would be “best served” by allowing more time for voters to get registered, for candidates to campaign, and for voters to be made aware that an election is taking place so they can participate.

“My pursuit is to try to ensure that as many voters as possible can particiapte,” Tarr said.

MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons,  issued a statement on Thursday calling Galvcin a “self-appointed political kingmaker” and accusing him of participating in a “naked partisan effort to dictate the outcome” of next year’s Senate contest.

“Like an old-fashioned big-city political boss, Galvin feels the need to predetermine who gets elected to the Legislature,” Lyons said in a press release. “It’s not surprising he’d have that sense of entitlement — Galvin was first elected to a Beacon Hill taxpayer-funded office in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president, All In The Family topped television ratings, and disco was the newest music fad.”

At least five Democrats — Sue Moran of Falmouth, Jack Stanton of Sandwich, Thomas Moakley of Falmouth, John Mahoney of Plymouth and Becky Coletta of Pembroke — have contacted the Plymouth Democratic Town Committee to express interest in running for the Senate, according to committee chairman Bill Keohan.

Jay McMahon, the 2018 GOP candidate for attorney general, has already jumped into the race.

Other special election scheduling in the Legislature this session has not produced the same level of controversy. The House agreed Monday to set March 3 as the general election to fill the open seat in the 32nd Middlesex District previously held by Paul Brodeur, who left to become mayor of Melrose.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
House Minority Leader Brad Jones told the News Service he did not raise an objection similar to Tarr’s because the dynamics of the two districts are different.

“In the Senate, it’s a seat vacated by a Republican member and in the House, a seat vacated by a Democratic member,” Jones said. “There are already announced candidates from both parties in the Senate. There’s not announced candidates from both parties for the House seat.”