A friend keeps hoping that each election will be a “wave” election — an election where the voters en masse choose dramatic change. His complaints aren’t ideological. Rather he’s pained by the corruption, inside dealing and outsized influence of special interests that marks politics not only nationally but also in Massachusetts. Throw all the bums out, is his attitude. Last Tuesday’s primaries gave him a glimmer of possibility: Not a wave — a ripple, perhaps — but the voters do seem to be getting restive.
Wave elections — also sometimes called realigning or critical elections — are a favorite of political scientists. The theory is that things bump along for a while, with those in power comfortably staying in power even as little problems build into bigger ones. Eventually, things come to a head. The classic realigning election supposedly was 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt won and an era of Democratic dominance began. Nothing of that kind is happening in the Bay State (if so, we’d now have the prospect of a legislature dominated by newcomers). Still, there are warning signs: In three prominent races, being part of the status quo appears to have hurt, not helped.
The three races were governor, treasurer, and the sixth congressional district. In terms of conventional issues, the Democratic candidates were in sync. Indeed, at times the efforts to paint contrasts seemed almost comical. Attorney general candidate Warren Tolman, for example, engaged in an odd argument with Maura Healey over what’s called smart-gun technology. He said he’d unilaterally require it on guns. She thought legislation was needed. This was not the kind of quarrel to inflame passions; it instead came off like dancing on the head of a pin.
Similarly, with the exception of casino gambling, differences among the gubernatorial candidates — on issues from health care to job creation to income inequality — were more of emphasis than substance. And in the congressional race, incumbent John Tierney was reduced to making absurd claims that his principal challenger, Seth Moulton, was some sort of sleeper agent beholden to John Boehner.
The real differences, instead, had to do with perception. Coakley, Tolman, and Tierney were — much to their dismay — effectively tagged with a set of new curse words: insider, old guard, establishment.
Coakley survived the slurs. But, as had been widely noted, her margin of victory — just six points — was far smaller than anyone expected. Indeed, a Globe poll taken a week before the election showed her with a margin of 22 percent — so great that even the combined votes of fellow Democrats Steve Grossman and Donald Berwick would not have beaten her. But both challengers, each a comparatively fresher face, saw their numbers grow considerably on Election Day. Grossman went from polling 25 percent to getting 36 percent; Berwick went from 13 to 21. More people didn’t want Coakley than wanted her.
Still, she lives to fight another day. Tolman and Tierney do not.
When he announced in last November, the prospect of Tolman becoming attorney general seemed inevitable. He was a familiar face, had innumerable friends and retained exceptionally close ties to labor (his brother heads the Massachusetts AFL-CIO).
Healey’s challenge at first seemed quixotic, then became real and then — in an extraordinary surge over the last two weeks — metamorphosed into something resembling a steamroller. Healy was an unknown. That alone, it seemed, made her worth consideration; her solid resume and sharp debate skills sealed the deal.
John Tierney too departs the stage. He started his fight for re-election fearing a challenge from Republican Richard Tisei, who lost to him by only 3,500 votes two years ago. But it was an opponent from his own party who did him in, voicing a simple theme of change. Towards the end, a desperate Tierney was seeking help from every Democratic stalwart he could find: Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Barney Frank, and Joe Kennedy III. If anything, Tierney’s appeal to his establishment credentials only made Moulton’s case stronger.
One should be careful not to oversell this theme of voters’ desire for something new. Turnout was only 16 percent, after all. Still, candidates who appear to be part of the system should be wary. It’s good to present yourself as an outsider. It’s even better to actually be one.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on September 11, 2014.