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Progressive loss in State House primary resurfaces debate over ranked-choice voting

Jeff Turco won a primary race to replace former House speaker Robert DeLeo.
Jeff Turco won a primary race to replace former House speaker Robert DeLeo.Henry Marte

Massachusetts progressives have seen it before: a number of liberal candidates split the vote in a Democratic primary, and a conservative candidate with a lane to himself ekes out a win.

Tuesday night’s results in a state House primary race told what feels like a familiar, disappointing tale for the liberal wing of the state’s dominant party, which has sometimes struggled to translate high-profile endorsements and online enthusiasm into electoral success. In the Winthrop and Revere race to replace a legislative giant, progressive icons had coalesced behind labor organizer Juan Jaramillo. But the victor of Tuesday’s primary, carrying just 36 percent of the vote according to unofficial returns, was the most conservative candidate on the slate, attorney Jeff Turco.

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Jaramillo took 30 percent of the vote in the primary contest to fill the seat vacated by former House speaker Robert A. DeLeo; the two other Democratic candidates won 34 percent between them. Turco, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and opposes abortion, is expected to win the March 30 general election against a Republican and an independent candidate.

If Tuesday’s race was a test of Massachusetts liberals’ electoral mettle, they did not pass. The outcome raises questions about whether progressives have reached their ceiling under the state’s current nominating process, and whether Massachusetts’ liberal reputation oversteps its voters’ preferences.

It also recalls the 2020 race to fill Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s congressional seat, when Jake Auchincloss, a one-time Republican, won the Democratic primary as a large field of more liberal candidates split the vote.

To some, this week’s outcome points to the need for ranked-choice voting, a system Massachusetts voters rejected last year, 55 percent to 45 percent. Under that system, if no candidate won more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, second-choice votes would be used to determine the victor.

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Some progressives said a ranked-choice system could have yielded an outcome that better represented voters’ preferences in this week’s election. Most voters, for example, backed a candidate who supports abortion rights, but the winner of the race does not.

It was “a tragic thing to see that the first election to happen after the defeat of [ranked-choice voting] on the ballot last year is one where ranked-choice voting very well could have led to a different outcome,” said Jonathan Cohn, elections committee chair for Progressive Massachusetts, which had backed Jaramillo. “Given that 64 percent of voters didn’t wake up that day and say they wanted to vote for a Democrat who supported Donald Trump, it’s entirely possible it could’ve led to a different outcome.”

Jesse Mermell, a progressive Democrat who narrowly lost to Auchincloss, said Tuesday’s outcome represents “a real problem with our democracy.” Most voters expressed support for a “certain type of candidate,” she said, and “a very different type of candidate won.”

To succeed without ranked-choice voting, she said, progressives may need to narrow the field earlier in the electoral process.

“We’ve seen over and over again that when progressives don’t consolidate or consolidate too late, we run the risk of something like this happening,” Mermell said.

Still, others said Jaramillo’s second-place finish had more to do with his ideology being too far left for the district. Jaramillo leaned into endorsements from leading progressive figures including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Boston. But that didn’t translate into enough in-district support, analysts said.

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Jaramillo is “yet another candidate who won the Internet and lost the election,” said Liam Kerr, an organizer with Priorities for Progress, a Democratic political action committee aimed at party unity. “Progressives are getting more detached from the mainstream voter in a way that’s really damaging for Democrats.”

Jaramillo was the top vote-getter in Revere, where Hispanic residents make up about a third of the population, and where Sanders won the 2020 presidential primary. But far more voters cast ballots in Winthrop, where the population is mostly white and generally wealthier than that of its neighbor. Biden won last year’s presidential primary in Winthrop, and Turco won there on Tuesday.

For Turco, discussion of ranked-choice voting amounts to “sour grapes,” and his victory is a win for the political center. And he dismissed competing campaigns’ “online warriors” and outside endorsements as out of step with the district’s voters.

“I didn’t bring in people from the outside — representatives from Cambridge and a congresswoman from Boston — to come into Winthrop and Revere and deign to tell them who they should vote for,” Turco said. The current primary system “is giving moderates an opportunity to get elected in both parties so they can help bridge the gap on many issues.”

Dynamics beyond ideology may also have been decisive in Tuesday’s election. Valentino Capobianco lost the support of major Democratic figures after GBH News reported he faced allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Capobianco ultimately won just 8 percent of the vote.

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Some political observers also pointed to Tuesday’s windy weather and the timing of the race — special elections are typically low-turnout affairs — as major factors in the outcome.

Jaramillo, who supports ranked-choice voting, said he considered Tuesday a victory in that “this community overwhelmingly voted for pro-worker, pro-immigrant, pro-women values,” he said. “When we elongate the table and bring more voices to it . . . progressives will be successful.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.