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editorial

With unopposed races, Mass. shortchanges democracy

The State House dome stood out as fog shrouded the Boston skyline.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file

The State House dome stood out as fog shrouded the Boston skyline.

It doesn’t speak well of Massachusetts, which likes to think of itself as the cradle of American democracy, that more than half of the state’s lawmakers will be elected to new terms by margins of victory even greater than the 88.7 percent that Bashar Assad claimed in Syria’s recent presidential election.

Five of the Bay State’s nine US representatives — Richard Neal, James McGovern, Joseph Kennedy, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch, all Democrats — are running unopposed in this fall’s midterm contests, with no challengers in either the primary or general election. A similar ratio applies in the state Senate, where 20 of the 40 incumbents face no opponent, Republican or Democratic. The lack of competition is just as glaring in the state House of Representatives, where more than 80 candidates (out of a total of 160) face no opponent at all, and barely a dozen are being challenged for renomination within their own party.

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The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office publishes a biennial guide for candidates that exhorts would-be elected officials: “Don’t just stand there . . . RUN!” But countless potential candidates — thoughtful men and women who could bring a lot to public affairs — don’t run.

Many are dissuaded from getting in the arena by the whopping campaign war chests that Massachusetts law permits incumbents to amass. According to Boston Magazine, state legislators were holding a collective $9 million in their campaign accounts at the end of 2013. This contributes to a culture of political careerism, which pays some dividends for taxpayers — in the form of a committed, almost year-round Legislature — but at the cost of discouraging some of the citizen-politicians, drawn from a diversity of occupations, of the type who run for office in New Hampshire and other New England states. Here, a majority of senators and representatives list “full-time legislator” as their occupation.

Massachusetts has debated and rejected both term limits and public “clean elections” financing as vehicles for infusing new blood and new ideas into public life. But the failure of those initiatives shouldn’t leave an entrenched culture of incumbency as the only other alternative. Some states have passed legislation that imposes a limit on the amount of money that a candidate carries over from one campaign to the next, or likewise have required a spend-down of existing campaign funds. Either solution would limit the size of those war chests that tend to scare off any opposition.

It would also be useful for political activists to foster a broader culture of competition in state politics. Activist groups should urge their members to start running in primaries, and local party committees should sponsor debates for state representative and state senate seats as aggressively as they scheduled meetings with gubernatorial hopefuls this year. Meanwhile, campaign-finance watchdogs should focus on more than the size of individual contributions: The fat, unused war chest that wards off any plausible challenger is as much of a threat to democracy as a fat, unrestricted contribution.

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