Massachusetts Democrats will come together for their convention in Worcester this weekend as the most dominant state party in the country. All statewide officeholders are Democrats. So too are all the members of Congress. There are veto-proof majorities in both houses of the Legislature. And the party’s stars, Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren, are perpetually in the conversation surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign, whether as a possible VP pick (Patrick) or as a potentially potent challenger to Hillary Clinton (Warren). But the Worcester party-goers would do well to remember that the weather is often warmest before a big, surprising storm.
Massachusetts Democrats would be foolish to view 2014 as a status quo election and spend their weekend applauding yesterday’s heroes while extending reflexive endorsements to a group of highly credentialed, but overly familiar, frontrunners for statewide posts. More of the same, with less attractive standard-bearers, isn’t a winning message. Rather, the 2014 Democrats need to do something unusual for a party on top of the world: Approach this election like an underdog.
Behind their bravado, many politically astute Democrats privately believe that the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker is the favorite for this fall’s election, with several key issues working in his favor. But their strategy so far seems to be to ignore that reality, as if voters won’t notice that Baker is a viable alternative if Democrats don’t treat him as one.
Instead, the party needs to take on Baker as a challenger whose ideas should be fully debated, while developing a future-oriented agenda of its own. Most important, the party should strive to avoid squelching promising new or dissenting voices. This will be difficult, given the deeply foolish rule that candidates must get 15 percent of convention delegates on the first ballot even to participate in a primary.
In the end, the fate of the Massachusetts Democrats in 2014 will depend on how well they address four key challenges. They are:
Defining the Patrick legacy: Patrick remains reasonably popular, and voters may be inclined to support a candidate who shares his priorities. But there have been some major administrative failures during his second term, a political problem that’s been somewhat masked by the fact that Patrick is an effective troubleshooter, while State House Republicans don’t have enough clout to call oversight hearings. Nonetheless, the lapses in the Department of Children and Families, Health Connector web site, and licensing process for medical marijuana won’t be ignored by voters. Thus, it would be a terrible mistake for Democratic gubernatorial candidates to assume these issues don’t exist except when someone is making a ruckus about them. Voters will be looking for a frank acknowledgment that the state government can do a better job handling its basic functions.
Avoiding special interests: Republicans generally win the governorship when the Democratic nominee seems too tied to Beacon Hill. One reason seems to be that upscale suburban voters don’t entirely trust the Democrats to stand up to unreasonable demands from government employees and labor unions. In this regard, Patrick is a positive role model, having exerted real energy — at least in his first term — on reforming education, the state transportation bureaucracy, and pensions. In 2010, he secured his re-election by claiming that his approach of bringing all the stakeholders together to make changes yielded better results than his Republican predecessors achieved by brow-beating unions. But since then, top Democrats including Warren and Senator Ed Markey have returned to an uncritical embrace of labor, and some gubernatorial candidates seem inclined to do the same. That would be a crucial mistake.
Developing a new agenda: One issue that’s breaking in Democrats’ direction is reform of criminal codes. Voters across the country are seeing the wisdom of alternative forms of punishment for non-violent crimes, the foolishness of unreasonably long prison sentences, and the way that inflexible sentencing guidelines can lead to miscarriages of justice. But Massachusetts Democrats have been slow to pick up on it. The 2014 Democrats need to produce a forward-looking plan for rehabilitation of addicts and alternatives to incarceration. Meanwhile, the issue of economic inequality remains on the table for the taking, and Democrats need to pursue a growth-oriented economic approach that goes beyond repeating longstanding (albeit worthy) priorities such as raising the minimum wage.
Making space for new voices: Democratic dominance in Massachusetts has resulted in many long-serving officeholders. That leaves a lot of veteran politicians waiting in line for higher office. This year, gubernatorial candidates include Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who’ve both lost races for statewide offices in the past, while the most prominent candidate for attorney general, former state Senator Warren Tolman, was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor way back in 1998 and lost his own run for governor four years later. However, three talented but relatively unknown challengers have joined the governor’s race — physician and health care executive Joe Avellone, homeland security specialist and former Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem, and former Medicare chief Don Berwick. And the attorney general’s race includes political newcomer Maura Healey, the former head of the AG’s civil rights division.
None of the new faces has electrified the party the way Patrick did in 2006. But they haven’t been especially visible, either. Now, all but Healey risk being broomed off the stage by the party’s rule that they must win 15 percent of delegates on the first convention ballot in order to go on to the primary election in September.
The rule is supposed to give candidates an incentive to build support, town by town, by visiting the caucuses where convention delegates are chosen. But any diligent politician would do so anyway, hoping to make a strong showing at the convention, whether or not delegates had the power to keep candidates off the primary ballot.
Republicans have the same rule, and it’s sparked a lawsuit and complaints of insiders trying to brush off insurgents. But Democrats are especially vulnerable, because they’re perceived as the more powerful bureaucracy. Clearing the field of secondary candidates often ends up hurting the top-tier candidates, as well. This year, that will certainly be the case: Coakley, Grossman, and Tolman all need to show that they’re in this for more than just personal advancement. Proving what voters already know — that they’re dedicated public servants, with solid records — won’t get them over the hump. They need to show passion and ability to attract votes. That’s best demonstrated by taking on all comers, and beating them.
On Saturday, the grins will be wide and the applause hearty. But the feeling in the pits of Democrats’ stomachs will be uneasy. This year’s Democrats should wipe away the pretense of invulnerability and get ready to fight.