Geoff Diehl, the favorite to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee, stood behind a makeshift podium Tuesday on the campus of UMass Lowell to herald one of his highest priorities: State government and state colleges, he said, should not mandate vaccines.
With one week to the Sept. 6 primary, there was a single reporter and photographer, plus two Diehl campaign aides, there to bear witness. A candidate for state representative stood alongside Diehl. People walked by, sometimes glancing at the small group huddled under the shade of a tree.
“I want to thank everybody for coming out today,” Diehl started.
A bizarre and mostly sleepy state primary is inching toward a close in Massachusetts, where nearly every constitutional office is up for grabs, yet large swaths of the electorate remain undecided, or unenthused, and without choices in races for some of the state’s most consequential offices.
Voters finally tuning in will find an unusual political landscape. There is no Democratic primary for governor despite an open seat, a first in the state’s modern era of gubernatorial elections. After wide-open congressional primaries and a brawl for a US Senate seat in the last two cycles, no incumbent member of the Massachusetts House delegation is facing a primary challenge.
Top-of-the-ticket drama there is not.
There’s the potential for history, for sure. Attorney General Maura Healey, the presumptive gubernatorial nominee, would be the first woman elected governor in Massachusetts history and the first openly lesbian governor in the country. Democrats could nominate an all-female ticket for the first time ever. And while a woman of color has never held statewide elected office, three could be vying to in November.
Yet, the history that could be made hasn’t saved the primary’s final days from being noticeably quieter, or from fears of middling turnout.
The final week is bereft of televised debates and, operatives say, the fervor that typically animates the final sprint. Money is gushing in, but millions of it from outside groups, including to contests for lieutenant governor or state auditor — down-ballot races that are often afterthoughts for voters.
“It’s been strange,” said Melvin Poindexter, a Massachusetts Democratic National Committee member. “Usually at this time it’s an absolutely fever pitch. You’ve got ads going on, you’ve got candidates popping in and around the state, hitting a lot of the cultural groups and making sure they’re as visible as possible.”
That still exists in some races, Poindexter said. “But I don’t see the interest.”
The unusual tenor starts at the top. Healey remains the only active candidate on the Democratic primary ballot after her opponents peeled from the race to succeed Governor Charlie Baker, who isn’t seeking reelection. Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz technically remains on the ballot, but she ended her campaign months ago.
That the field cleared for Healey, a twice-elected, well-funded front-runner, didn’t surprise political observers. But it is unprecedented. In the nearly 60 years that Massachusetts governors have been elected to four-year terms, there has never been a Democratic primary with just one active candidate running for an open seat.
“They always say, ‘Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line.’ It seems like this time, we’ve fallen in line,” said Ryan McCollum, a Democratic strategist whose first job in politics after college was in 2002, when the party had five candidates on the gubernatorial primary ballot. “I don’t want to call it melancholy, but it is different and surreal having the top of the ticket being someone who has cleared the field.”
It has likely had an effect on the rest of the ticket. A competitive, if feisty, gubernatorial primary can help draw attention, money, and interest to the cycle as a whole, if not TV ratings.
In 2014, the last time the governor’s office was open, candidates Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Donald Berwick faced off three times in televised debates in the nine days before the primary. Each made separate radio appearances that same week. Voters could likely find Grossman at their local ice cream shop on any given day.
Healey, meanwhile, has yet to debate anyone this cycle. She was scheduled to appear Thursday in Brockton, her first public event since the weekend.
“It’s definitely different. It’s even hard for Maura to motivate people,” John Walsh, who managed Deval Patrick’s upset of Attorney General Tom Reilly in the 2006 primary, said of the current environment.
In 2006, thousands of volunteers were knocking on doors in the final days, and the campaign was holding “five or six events a day, easy,” Walsh said. The party, meanwhile, was furiously raising money ahead of the general election, to the point that Phil Johnston, then party chairman, joked that he didn’t sleep that week.
“If [Healey’s] victory was on the line, there would be fewer people hanging out on Cape Cod,” Walsh said. “The plan is not for uncontested domination.”
Republican voters do have choices for governor in Diehl, a former Whitman lawmaker endorsed by Donald Trump, and Chris Doughty, a largely self-financed, first-time candidate from Wrentham.
But that race, too, has operated below the radar. The pair have debated just once, and there appear to be no plans to meet again ahead of Sept. 6, despite prodding from Howie Carr, the conservative radio host who moderated their first debate.
Diehl, who has led Doughty in public polling, has struggled to raise money — he had less than $43,000, according to his most recent filing — while pitching a conservative vision for the office.
For example, Diehl has railed against vaccination mandates even as polling showed a vast majority of residents in Boston and around the state support them. Diehl also vowed to create a new office within the state education department to “monitor schools for the promotion of any political agenda,” echoing efforts like those under Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to reshape what’s taught in schools.
Doughty, meanwhile, has poured at least $2.1 million of his own cash into his campaign, calling himself a more moderate choice intensely focused on driving down costs for taxpayers. He supports, for example, rolling the state income tax back to 5 percent. But it remains to be seen whether he can pierce a GOP voter base that lifted Diehl to a US Senate nomination four years ago and the party’s endorsement in June.
They both also have another problem: Public polling, to date, shows each trailing Healey by more than 30 points.
It all has helped create a vacuum of interest throughout the ballot.
In the race for state auditor, for example, a MassINC poll last week found that 71 percent of Democratic primary voters felt they didn’t have enough information to decide between the party’s two candidates, state Senator Diana DiZoglio and transportation advocate Chris Dempsey. Sixty percent said the same about the three-way primary for lieutenant governor featuring state Senator Eric P. Lesser, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, and state Representative Tami L. Gouveia.
“I feel sorry for the down-ballot candidates,” said Johnston, the former party chairman. “It’s a struggle in this environment.”
The now two-way primary for attorney general may stand alone in injecting intrigue into the cycle. In the closing days of the race, the biggest names in the state’s Democratic Party have split between Andrea Campbell, a former Boston city councilor, and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney, while a third candidate, Quentin Palfrey, ended his campaign with just days to go and quickly backed Campbell.
Liss-Riordan has thrown millions of her own dollars into the race, pitting her résumé against Campbell’s compelling life story and own elected experience. Many in the party increasingly see the race as a toss-up.
“This one is the Thrilla in Manila,” said Grossman, the 2014 gubernatorial hopeful and former state treasurer. He said he also couldn’t recall ever saying that about a primary for attorney general.
“I don’t remember one quite like this,” the 76-year-old said of the election cycle. “I’m not sure anyone would either.”