In 4th Congressional District, echo of another race for a Kennedy seat 

Will progressive voters coalesce around 1 candidate? 

IT’S A CROWDED Democratic primary field for a rare open congressional seat in Massachusetts, one being vacated by a son of the state’s most storied political family. 

While that fairly describes the scramble that is on for the House seat Joe Kennedy is giving up to run for US Senate, it was also the template for a Democratic primary race 22 years ago when his father, Joseph Kennedy II, gave up the Boston-based House seat he had held for six terms. 

And the parallels go beyond that, in ways that are shaping the dynamics of this year’s race and could determine its ultimate outcome. 

While the comparison is not perfect, both contests include a candidate who seems to stand apart from the others, a distinction in a crowded field that can bring both opportunity and peril. In 1998, it was former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, whose pro-life views on abortion were a sharp contrast to the position of his opponents in a 10-way Democratic primary in a liberal-leaning district. In this year’s seven-candidate race in the Fourth Congressional District, it’s Jake Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor whose stint in Republican politics and comments on a string of controversial issues have stood out, making him the target of attacks from rivals who say he is out of step with the district’s Democratic electorate. 

Auchincloss has been at or toward the top in the very limited polling available on the race. Now, as the race heads toward Tuesday’s finish line, one question looming is whether he has enough support to win a race where 20 or 25 percent of the vote might be all that’s needed to prevail, or do enough voters rally around one of his more progressive rivals to put that candidate over the top?

“The ‘98 race was sort of who can take on Ray Flynn? Who is the other guy in the race? And in this race, clearly Auchincloss fits the Ray Flynn mold,” said George Bachrach, a former state senator who finished third in the 1998 race.  

Michael Capuano, then the mayor of Somerville, emerged victorious in the Democratic primary, going on to win the seat that November and serve 20 years in Congress before being defeated two years ago by Ayanna Pressley. But for much of the race all eyes were on Flynn, home after a stint as US ambassador to the Vatican, who decided to dive back into the political mix five years after leaving City Hall. 

Flynn had enormous advantages from his decade as a popular Boston mayor, but his pro-life position on abortion, which didn’t figure prominently in municipal politics, was suddenly front and center in a race for Congress. It gave him a solid bloc of older, more conservative primary voters, but it also made stopping Flynn a strong theme of the race in an overall strongly pro-choice district. In the end, that dynamic worked to help lift Capuano, who emerged in polls late in the race as the strongest Flynn rival. The former Boston mayor finished second.

In a crowded, winner-take-all race a candidate doesn’t need to win over a majority of voters. It’s enough simply to carve out a bigger piece of the electoral pie than anyone else, and having lots of rivals who splinter the support of more like-minded voters can help that happen. 

“The old adage in politics is that the race is won as the field is formed,” said Bachrach.

Auchincloss, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran, is hardly a right-wing ideologue. He rails against the Trump agenda, and touts affordable housing and transportation innovations. In July, the generally liberal-leaning Boston Globe editorial page endorsed him, though not without some controversy

But Auchincloss spent time in 2013 and 2014 working for the Massachusetts Republican Party to get Charlie Baker elected governor. His rivals have pounced on that background and also lit into him over a series of social media posts and public statements on race and religious issues. But his nod to Baker’s brand of moderate Republicanism probably distinguishes him both for better and worse amid a more liberal field. 

The 1998 primary for the open Boston-based seat “became a stop Flynn race,” said Mike Shea, a political consultant on Capuano’s campaign. “And I think you could see the same dynamic here. These people’s goal should be to say, ‘I am the liberal standard bearer here,’” he said of Auchincloss’s rivals. 

Which is exactly what some of them are doing. 

“It is clearer and clearer to us with every passing day that this is a race between us and Jake Auchincloss,” said Jesse Mermell, a former Brookline select board member and former top aide to Gov. Deval Patrick. “Voters see there is a real choice between a recent former Republican operative and a proven progressive who’s been out there for 20 years fighting for working families,” said Mermell, who recently picked up the backing of two candidates who dropped out of what had been a nine-way primary.  

Newton city councilor Becky Grossman said her campaign, in which she has emphasized her perspective as a mother of two young children, is well positioned with what she claimed is “the largest, broadest, in-district coalition of support,” in the race, ticking off backing from elected officials and unions. “I don’t see how voters can trust Jake Auchincloss,” Grossman told Boston.com earlier this month. “His support and work to elect Republicans, coupled with his history of offensive comments, contradict any Democratic values he claims to have.”

Ihssane Leckey, a Moroccan immigrant and former Wall Street regulator who entered the race 15 months ago — before there was even talk that Kennedy might vacate the seat — has poured more than $1 million of her own money into the race. “We are, quite frankly, the only progressive campaign in the race with the grass roots support and funding to beat someone who aligns himself with Republicans in a deep blue state,” said Leckey, who describes herself as a democratic socialist. 

Also vying in the race are Alan Khazei, founder of the national nonprofit City Year, Natalia Linos, an epidemiologist who is stressing the unique value of her background amid a global pandemic, and Brookline attorney Ben Sigel, who would be the first Latino the state sent to Congress. 

Auchincloss said he’s not focusing on the “negativity from other campaigns.” 

He has had to answer for social media posts and statements that have been branded racially insensitive and “Islamophobic.” And he’s been pressed to explain changes in position such as a recent leftward shift in his view on a $15 minimum wage, which he now supports. But Auchincloss is leaning into, not running away from, his work to help elect the state’s two-term Republican governor.

“I am an Obama-Baker voter,” said Auchincloss, no doubt keenly aware of the governor’s sky-high poll ratings even among Democratic primary voters. “I look at political leaders for their ability to build coalitions for progress, to seek out good ideas regardless of their provenance, and be guided by facts and science and not subject to the rigid constraints of ideology,” he said. 

While his continued Baker fealty in a Democratic primary sets Auchincloss apart from the field, what’s not clear is whether more liberal-leaning voters in the district, which reaches from Brookline, Newton, and other affluent Boston suburbs all the way south to Fall River, are trying to make a strategic choice in settling on another candidate. 

Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said primary voters do make calculations about which candidates who broadly represent their views have the best shot at winning. But she said “the salience of that is much greater in higher profile races like presidential elections.” O’Brien pointed to the way more moderate Democratic presidential primary voters coalesced around Joe Biden, even if he wasn’t their first choice, once he emerged as the candidate most likely to stop Bernie Sanders’s insurgent left-wing campaign.  

“But in a congressional primary,” O’Brien said, “voters are not getting as many clues as to who is viable.” 

That’s particularly true in the Fourth District race, playing out at a time when media retrenchment has also meant a sharp pullback in polling. No local news organizations have conducted polling in the race. Two independent polls have been done on the race, the first earlier this month when Data for Progress, a New York think tank, released the results of a poll conducted from August 10 to August 14. It showed Auchincloss, Grossman, and Mermell in a virtual dead-heat for the lead, but nearly all the candidates fell within the margin of error and almost 30 percent of likely primary voters were still not even leaning toward any candidate.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

On Sunday, a poll was released by Jewish Insiderwhich suggested a two-candidate race emerging between Auchincloss, who had 23 percent, and Mermell, who was at 22 percent. Grossman was favored by 15 percent of likely primary voters and Leckey by 11 percent, with the remaining candidates in single digits. The share of voters still undecided was down to 10 percent. 

This story was updated on Sunday evening to include the newer poll results.