Legislative candidates seek election do-overs 

Several November races will be rematches 

DOING THE SAME thing again and expecting a different result may be the definition of insanity, as the saying goes, but some legislative candidates are doing it anyway. 

This November, voters will be asked to choose sides – again – in several legislative rematches. 

Democratic state Sen. Sue Moran, Democratic state Sen. John Velis, and Democratic state Rep. Carol Doherty all won their seats in special elections this spring, and all are facing the same challengers again this fall. Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Lenny Mirra is facing a rematch against the same Democrat he narrowly defeated in 2018, while Democratic Sen. Anne Gobi is facing the same Republican she defeated in 2018. 

Former Democratic Party chairman John Walsh, a veteran of working on state legislative races, said the main reasons someone would run for office a second time against the same person are, “They really disagree with their opponents, they really think they’d be better as a state rep, and there’s in theory something about the circumstances this time that would be different.” 

The special election candidates also faced a unique election quirk this year. Because several special elections got delayed this spring due to the coronavirus, candidates wanting to run in November had to file signatures to get on the ballot before they knew if they won the special election. So the campaigns have essentially continued unabated. 

“If either one of us won and wanted to run for reelection, we had to get signatures and get on the ballot for November no matter what,” said Jay McMahon, a Republican attorney from Bourne running against Moran. McMahon lost to Moran in May, 56 percent to 43 percent. 

McMahon said he is “absolutely” running seriously this time around. McMahon said with only 20,000 people casting ballots in the May special election, that is “hardly a referendum” on who the district favors. “With a presidential election, that has a tendency to bring out anybody who’s going to vote,” he said. 

While each legislative race is unique, shaped by the contours of that individual district, a look at some of these rematches also finds commonalities. They are often in swing districts, where there is some reason to believe a higher turnout election might lead to a different outcome. The candidates know each other already, but are generally careful to avoid the perception that they are running the same campaign the second time around, often choosing new issues to focus on or new campaign tactics. 

Mirra said the first time he faced Democrat Christina Eckert, in 2018, it was his first contested reelection campaign since he won office in 2012. Eckert outspent Mirra, and Mirra didn’t even know how to run digital ads. He won by just 324 votes – a 1.4 percent margin. “We were caught a little flat-footed,” Mirra admitted. 

Christina Eckert, a Democratic candidate for state representative in the Second Essex District.

The North Shore area district tends to lean red, with conservative voters populating towns like Boxford, Groveland and Georgetown, but it has had representatives from both parties. Democrat Harriett Stanley represented the district from 1994 to 2010, following Republican Thomas Palumbo who held the seat since 1984.  

Mirra said this time, he is fundraising more, assembling more of a campaign team, and doing more with digital ads and social media. 

Eckert said the main change in her campaign is that she can no longer knock on doors, due to the pandemic. She is counting on the presidential election boosting Democratic turnout. 

Eckert said it is hard to run against an incumbent who has the advantages of years of name recognition, greater visibility, and a built-up campaign contact list. But Eckert said she is better known this time around because she ran two years ago, and she has reassembled the same team. She thinks her recent job as interim director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council and her long-time involvement with area schools prepares her to address issues related to the environment and education. 

“I was the only person in a decent position to run for the seat again because I felt no one else seems to want to step up and do it, and I had recognition from having run before,” Eckert said. 

A big question for the candidates is how the high turnout of a presidential election will impact down-ballot races that last time were decided by small numbers of voters.  

In the 3rd Bristol District, which includes Taunton and Easton, Doherty, who won the seat in a special election in June, is facing a rematch against Republican Kelly Dooner. Doherty won the special election by 549 votes, 57 percent to 43 percent. The district, generally considered a swing district, was previously represented by Republican Shaunna O’Connell – who beat a Democrat by 31 votes to take the seat in 2010 – and before that by Democrat James Fagan.  

Dooner said she always planned to run again. “My reasoning still stands. We need a fresh new young voice in the State House,” Dooner said.  

Dooner said her campaign last time was hurt when the pandemic made door-to-door campaigning impossible. Dooner moved to the district five years ago, and Doherty likely had more name recognition as a district resident since 1965 and a five-term Taunton School Committee member. Now, Dooner said, she is back to meeting with voters and knocking on doors. 

But Doherty believes the district will benefit from her experience, and she now has the advantage of an incumbent, if only for a few months. “I’ve been in the community longer. I’m more well known. I have a better sense of the wants and needs of the community and how to deal with those issues from a legislative perspective,” Doherty said. 

Doherty has joined several legislative caucuses that meet by Zoom – the progressive caucus, women’s caucus, Gateway Cities caucus, and others – and has been forming relationships with fellow legislators and discussing bills. Even as she was still checking out her office and ordering stationery, she participated in a few intense deliberations in July when the House took up police reform and economic development bills.  

Jason Cincotti, a Democratic political operative, said ideally a rematch candidate should focus on the race they are in, rather than replaying their past race. But that is unusual. “Most candidates run the last campaign they just had as opposed to running the campaign that they’re in. They figure I’m going to do the same thing, it’s going to have a different outcome.” 

Cincotti said a key for a successful candidate in a rematch is to figure out why the electoral math will be different this time around.  

For example, McMahon said his special election against Moran came on the same day as an override vote in the town of Falmouth, which drew out voters in Falmouth, which is Moran’s hometown and leans Democratic. In November, competitive state representative races as well as the presidential race could draw more voters from more conservative parts of Plymouth County. 

The district is a swing district, held by Democratic Senate president Therese Murray from 1992 to 2014, then Republican Sen. Vinny DeMacedo until this year. 

Moran, however, now has the advantage of incumbency. “I think that every race gives you an opportunity to improve your best and to reach out even to more individuals than you did the first time,” Moran said. “Being the incumbent, I’m more well-known across the district and that gives me a greater audience to listen to in terms of what people need, and that informs me on how best to serve the community as their senator.”  

Moran has focused her reelection campaign on district-specific issues like creating coastal and aquaculture-related jobs and replacing the Bourne and Sagamore bridges.  

While incumbents generally enjoy a clear edge in campaigns, the Massachusetts Legislature gives lawmakers an additional advantage: the legislative session endin July every election year, which gives candidates plenty of free time to campaign, although the session was extended this year due to COVID-19. A candidate in a private sector job is often working while campaigning.  

Walsh said there is some conventional wisdom that the best time to challenge an incumbent is during their first reelection campaign, since they have not yet established themselves in office. But at the same time, voters may want to give newly elected officials time to prove themselves before choosing someone else.  

Walsh said the dynamic changes in a rematch because the candidates already know each other, including their policies, platforms, and campaign strategies. “You know the policies, you know the lines are clearly drawn,” Walsh said. 

Democratic political consultant Gregory Maynard said the second time around, a challenger has had a chance to improve their campaign skills, build up their campaign team, become better known, and fundraise more. “A lot of time they didn’t stop campaigning,” Maynard said. 

Other rematches include the Western Massachusetts Senate district where Velis, of Westfield, is facing a challenge from Republican John Cain, of Southwick, and the Senate district west of Worcester, where Gobi, of Spencer, is facing a rematch against Republican Steven Hall, of SturbridgeVelis beat Cain 64 percent to 36 percent in a special election to win the state Senate seat earlier this year. Gobi, who has been in the Senate since 2014, defeated Hall in 2018, 55 percent to 45 percent. 

Several candidates in rematch races are focusing on issues that were not important the last time around. For example, candidates on both sides brought up a controversial bill pending in the Legislature to reform practices around police accountability. Others are focused on the economic recovery related to COVID-19. The ROE Act, a bill expanding abortion rights, is getting renewed attention with the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 

Christina Kulich, a political science instructor at Suffolk University, said at a higher level, rematches are rare. In the US Senate, there have been fewer than 50 rematch races since 1913. The fewest rematch races have taken place in the northeast and in the south, where states tend to lean strongly Republican or strongly Democratic. She said a similar trend exists in Massachusetts, where few competitive districts mean there is a dearth of contested elections. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Kulich said there has also been conventional wisdom that incumbency “is like a silver bullet  it is strong to insurmountable.” She said that has been changing as party control on candidates has loosened, leading to more primary challenges, and as outside factors like Tea Party energy or the current “blue wave” of resistance push people to run. But incumbents – unless they are scandal-ridden  still tend to have advantages of money, political organization, a brand, and a voter base.