Connecticut is often derided as the “Land of Steady Habits.” I never thought that moniker was especially fair because, from Ralph Nader to John Brown to Annie Leibovitz, we’ve produced some real groundbreakers over the centuries. Now after watching what’s happened politically in one of our New England neighbors, I’m not so sure.
I always thought it was a reflection of how so many people think our state is boring. Remember when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy famously called Hartford “America’s file cabinet?” After doing a little research I confirmed that the tag is hardly a term of endearment. According to ConnecticutHistory.org, when it first appeared widely in print in the early 1800s, “‘The Land of Steady Habits’ was associated with Connecticut’s ancient tradition of assuring political stability through repeatedly electing the same officials to high office.”
After working a day job in our neighbor to the north for the last seven years, I’m beginning to change my mind about the term and its applicability. Conventional wisdom has it that Massachusetts is just as guilty of electing the same people as we are. And from Teddy Kennedy to Tip O’Neill to Tom Menino, Bay Staters do have a habit of continually re-electing their favored pols.
But in the last few years, I’ve seen a willingness on the part of voters in Massachusetts to jettison calcified incumbents in favor of younger upstarts. I’m not sure why that is. In more conservative states, the political landscape is littered with the bodies of Republicans who strayed, only to be primaried by a true believer. Incumbent GOP members of Congress live in constant fear that an ugly tweet from President Trump will embolden a hitherto unknown Republican to topple Goliath.
That phenomenon appears to be increasing among Democrats and, in some states, it has been accelerated by the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who two years ago transformed herself practically overnight from a 27-year-old waitress and bartender to a member of Congress, having ousted 10-term incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in a primary.
New York state still has a fair number of conservative Republicans. Once you get north of places like Kingston and Rhinebeck, New York mostly turns into Alabama. Until 2018, the New York State Senate, for example, had been controlled by Republicans since World War II for all but three years.
We still have more Republicans per capita than Massachusetts. From 2016 to 2018, the Connecticut Senate was equally split between Republicans and Democrats. That’s no longer the case but there’s still a healthy GOP representation in Hartford.
Not so in Massachusetts. Only six of its 40 state Senate members are Republican. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House by a ratio of 4-1. The state has a GOP governor in Charlie Baker but he is really Republican-lite. Baker, for example, has publicly repudiated Donald Trump and says he did not vote for him in 2016.
So in Massachusetts, congressional challenges typically come from within the party and the Democratic primary is often the de facto general election. In western Massachusetts, that’s happening on two levels and both races are attracting national attention.
Ed Markey has been in Congress for 47 years but, remarkably, he is only the state’s junior senator. Markey has great progressive bona fides but is being primaried by Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of the late Uncle Bobby. No one is quite sure why. The two men don’t diverge much on policy. Consequently, “the contest has often fomented a narcissism of small differences,” according to the Berkshire Eagle, which endorsed Kennedy. I’d say the reason for the challenge is quite simple. When the entitled Kennedys want something, they simply take it. It is also worth noting that a Kennedy has never lost a race for political office in Massachusetts. Current polling for the Sept. 1 primary suggests the race is too close to call.
The race for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District also pits a longtime establishment figure against a young upstart. In some ways, it’s even more interesting than the Senate race.
Incumbent Democrat Richard Neal of Springfield is no stranger to Connecticut, having obtained his master’s degree from the University of Hartford and having sent one of his sons to Salisbury School.
Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee (that committee’s name is always preceded by the word “powerful, by the way) has long been a target of progressives for his fundraising habits, which includes taking large donations from private equity and pharmaceutical company PACs. In addition, Neal was endorsed by Republican Baker.
Enter 31-year-old Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, whose progressive creds are said to be beyond reproach. To wit, he was endorsed by no less than “AOC” herself. According to the latest polls I’ve seen, Morse is only five points behind Neal. That’s even after he was the victim of a scurrilous smear campaign perpetrated by Neal supporters, if not Neal’s own campaign.
Morse is openly gay and lectures at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, whose student newspaper broke the story that Morse had been hitting on students at College Democrats events and that the mayor was no longer welcome at their events.
Reporting by The Intercept subsequently confirmed “that the allegations were part of a scheme by at least two members of UMass College Democrats leadership … to entrap and take down Morse, that had been contemplated for nearly a year, with [one of the leaders] hoping to curry favor with Neal.”
In addition to this year’s primary challenges, Massachusetts has a recent history of these sorts of upsets. In 2014, Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton primaried incumbent John Tierney in the 6th district and beat the 18-year veteran by 10 points. Two years ago, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano, a 20-year veteran of the House, in the 6th district primary.
In other words, these sorts of intraparty challenges are getting to be a habit in Massachusetts. In Connecticut, no so much. When was the last time a powerful incumbent congressman or senator faced a serious primary threat here?
As far as I’ve been able to determine, it was in 2006, when current Gov. Ned Lamont was incensed over Sen. Joe Lieberman’s vote for President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, along with Lieberman’s general coziness with Republicans. Lamont, you may recall, prevailed in the primary by 4 points but lost that November after Lieberman burned Democratic bridges to run as an independent.
Why the reluctance in Connecticut to challenge an incumbent member of your own party? Maybe it’s because our elected Democratic officials are so talented and effective that they’re beyond reproach. Or maybe it’s simply because we’re not in the “habit” of rocking the boat. But hey, I’m open to being challenged on that latter theory.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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