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Potential political surprises ahead in state Democratic primary races

A new poll shows that key races are close enough to be virtual toss-ups, with no clear front-runners and many undecided voters.

Massachusetts Democratic attorney general candidates Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey participate in a debate held at WBUR on Aug. 10.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Here we are again, with primary day coming up like an end-of-summer surprise party, the day after Labor Day. What can one say about the state of play in the Democratic contests?

Key races are close enough to be virtual toss-ups, with no clear front-runners and many undecided voters, which spells ample opportunities for surprise. According to a recent poll by MassINC Polling Group, a third of voters haven’t made up their minds in the primary race for attorney general, while half or more are undecided in the nominating contest for auditor and lieutenant governor.

The AG’s race has been one of this sleepy season’s marquee contests. Although former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell has long led the race, class-action employment lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, buoyed by heavy, largely self-financed spending on TV ads and direct mail, has surged over late summer.

Campbell, who enjoys name recognition from last year’s Boston mayoral campaign, maintains a slight edge, leading Liss-Riordan 28 percent to 26 percent. Quentin Palfrey, the Democrats’ 2018 lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, has 10 percent.


Since the survey of 401 likely Democratic primary voters, conducted Aug. 19 to 21, has a margin of error of 4.9 percent, the race between Campbell and Liss-Riordan is a virtual tie. The poll was commissioned by Policy For Progress, a center-left group that promotes practical, evidence-driven ideas for the Commonwealth.

A measure of movement in that contest: In a June MassINC poll, Liss-Riordan clocked in at just 6 percent.

It’s a rare thing to have an auditor’s race become an energetic competition in Massachusetts, but the Democratic campaign to replace retiring incumbent Suzanne Bump is just that. It features state Senator Diana DiZoglio against Chris Dempsey, who won a reputation for independent-mindedness when he helped lead the fight against bringing the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston.


Dempsey leads DiZoglio 23 percent to 19 percent, which marks a gain for him; in the June MassInc survey, she led by 4 percentage points.

Over those three races, almost half to 71 percent of those polled felt they didn’t have enough information to make an informed choice about the candidates. So how to decide?

Well, if you want a nominee for attorney general who is the clear choice of recent attorneys general, that’s Campbell. She has the endorsement not just of current AG Maura Healey, soon to be the Democratic nominee for governor, but of the man who set the standard for the modern attorneys general, Frank Bellotti. Former AGs Jim Shannon, Scott Harshbarger, and Martha Coakley are also backing her.

Campbell has enunciated a broader vision for the AG’s office than has Liss-Riordan, but Liss-Riordan is clearly the more experienced courtroom lawyer, where in her legal specialty she has been a formidable force.

Of the two, Campbell has been the more transparent candidate. She has released her tax returns and has made available to this reporter questionnaires she’s filled out seeking constituency group endorsements. Liss-Riordan, the heavy favorite of labor unions, has declined to do either.

If for auditor you want someone who has proven his independence of mind in public battles, the iconoclastic, Olympics-battling Dempsey is the clear choice. Contrariwise, if you want a candidate who comes with the union stamp of approval — and a union-funded super PAC supporting her — go with DiZoglio.


Rare is the person who stands in awe before the office of lieutenant governor. Subtract Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, who ascended to the governorship when their bosses left, and John Kerry is the last second banana to successfully use the lieutenant governor’s office as a springboard to a better elected post: a seat in the US Senate. Back in 1984.

Two very good candidates aspire to the otiose office, Kim Driscoll, who has served as mayor of Salem since 2006, and state Senator Eric Lesser, who has represented the First Hampden and Hampshire District since 2015.

Driscoll leads Lesser 21 to 14 in the poll, with state Representative Tami Gouveia at 7 percent. Here’s hoping that whoever ends up as lieutenant governor soon finds something better to do.

Finally, this poll cast some noteworthy light on Democratic feelings about President Biden and the future direction of their party. Asked if Biden should run for reelection, 45 percent said he should, with 39 percent disagreeing. That’s an improvement: In the June MassINC survey, those numbers were 44 percent “no,” 41 percent “yes.”

If the incumbent doesn’t run again, 59 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in a state viewed nationally as a bastion of liberalism say they want a successor with Biden’s ideological profile, with 27 percent saying they’d favor a more liberal replacement and 8 percent desiring a more conservative president.


Take note, Democrats.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.