The stakes are high in the battle for Massachusetts’s first new US senatorship in a quarter-century. This is the seat held by legends from John Quincy Adams to John F. Kennedy, and if won by a Democrat, it would guarantee a filibuster-proof majority at a time when high-profile legislation is in the pipeline. So it’s understandable if the actual contest as it’s unfolded so far has seemed uninspiring. We came in expecting a great clash among giants, but what we actually have is a genial pageant of capable candidates, as was evident on stage at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Monday night, in the campaign’s first televised debate.
Adding to the lack of excitement is the fact that the four Democratic candidates — Congressman Michael Capuano, Attorney General Martha Coakley, City Year founder Alan Khazei, and businessman Steve Pagliuca — agree on the vast majority of issues. Even Lincoln and Douglas would have been boring if they kept giving the same answers.
But the lack of onstage fireworks doesn’t mean there’s no tension to be found in this race. This Senate campaign is forcing other elected officeholders in the state to choose sides — a high-stakes decision that, in some cases, comes down to choosing which powerful people’s enemies list to put yourself on.
In the less than two months since the campaign began to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s US Senate seat, fully three-quarters of Massachusetts’s 181 Democratic state legislators have publicly taken sides, endorsing either Coakley or Capuano. Several of the state’s congressmen have also endorsed, as have a number of mayors, sheriffs, and other elected officials.
The pressure on pols to choose between the race’s two heavyweights has been intense. (Khazei and Pagliuca are not expecting many endorsements from elected officials.) While political pundits generally pooh-pooh the power of endorsements, these elected officials control local and regional operations that can be a huge boon for Coakley and Capuano, who have had relatively little time to build their own networks for this hastily assembled special election. Plus, front-runner Coakley is trying to use her long list of endorsers as evidence of her widespread popularity — while Capuano is trying to show that not everyone is backing her.
Who’s winning the endorsement battle depends on how you’re scoring. Coakley has the numbers — 88 state legislators, or nearly half, to 49, or just over a quarter, for Capuano — and a broader geographical representation of endorsers. She also has some of the most impressive “gets”; along with State Senate President Therese Murray, she has endorsements from the Senate and House majority leaders, Fred Berry and James Vallee.
But Capuano has far outdone her among higher officeholders, who represent larger swaths of the state. Capuano has the backing of four members of his peers among the congressional delegation, that of Barney Frank, Jim McGovern, John Tierney, and Stephen Lynch.
Plus, Capuano has gotten the nod from five of the state’s nine Democratic sheriffs — including Middlesex’s James DiPaola, who worked alongside Coakley when she was that county’s district attorney. (A sixth — Suffolk County’s Andrea Cabral — has endorsed Khazei.)