Political chaos seen as cause of voter fatigue

Low turnout is forecast for Tuesday’s Senate election

When Massachusetts voters elect yet another US senator on Tuesday — their third new one in 3½ years — they might be forgiven for demanding a bit of a rest from the nonstop election cycle.

But almost immediately, the political world will pivot to the next gubernatorial campaign and this fall’s mayoral free-for-all in Boston, both of which have been overshadowed by the Senate battle.

In addition, the winner of Tuesday’s balloting for the Senate must turn around and begin running for reelection next year when the term John F. Kerry was elected to ends.


And a victory by Representative Edward J. Markey on Tuesday over Republican newcomer Gabriel Gomez would set off yet another race to fill Markey’s congressional seat, a potential campaign that has already drawn in a batch of up-and-coming political figures.

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Order has given way to chaos in the Massachusetts political world, with a churning of a once-static leadership and several consecutive years of high-stake campaigns. In a state where incumbency has reigned, the senior US senator — Elizabeth Warren — has been in office just six months.

“It is certainly a changing of the guard,’’ said Thomas J. Whalen, a professor of social science at Boston University who has written about state political history. “Massachusetts has always longed for that grand consistency. We don’t like changes.”

For the first time in recent history, many of the most powerful leaders in the state are lame ducks, fueling the hopes of younger political leaders trying to move up.

Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, one of the state’s dominant political figures over the last two decades, announced in March that he would not seek reelection, setting up a September preliminary election that has could see as many as 12 candidates on the ballot. The top two contenders square off in the November general election.


On Beacon Hill, a back-room battle is underway to succeed the Senate president, Therese Murray, who must leave that post in early 2015 because of term limits.

The lobbying — by the majority leader, Stanley C. Rosenberg of Amherst, and the ways and means chairman, Stephen M. Brewer of Barre — has grown increasingly intense amid reports that Murray could leave as early as the end of this year if she could find the right private sector job and make a graceful exit.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Governor Deval Patrick, who leaves office in 18 months. Patrick has only a small window of opportunity before he is smothered by the political uproar of a gubernatorial campaign.

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans and Democrats who aspire to the corner office must declare themselves by Labor Day — little more than two months away — in order to maximize their fund-raising. To be successful financially, they must tap their donors to contribute the annual maximum in both 2013 and 2014.

Making the upheaval complete is the rare turnover that the state’s congressional delegation has seen in recent years, with Barney Frank, Martin Meehan, William Delahunt, and John Olver all retiring, setting off a slew of hotly contested races.


The unusual volatility, observers say, has tired out voters, who are expected to turn out in record low numbers on Tuesday.

‘Everything is in a flux. There is no set standard of rules, so people are just blocking it out. They’re tired of it all.’ — Warren Tolman, Former state senator

“I think you have democratic fatigue,’’ said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, noting that the public has been asked in a very compacted time frame to vote on a slew of candidates in hotly contested races. He also cited other electoral demands on voters, from a bruising and long-fought presidential election to the local city and town races, that took place. “It can be overwhelming to the sense of any citizen, even those usually active in politics.’’

Former state senator Warren Tolman, the Democrats’ 1998 nominee for the lieutenant governor, said voters are confused and turned off by the continual political hyperactivity.

“Everything is in a flux,’’ he said. “There is no set standard of rules, so people are just blocking it out. They’re tired of it all.’’

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said late last week that requests for absentee ballots is 20 percent lower than the previous special Senate election in 2010 when Scott Brown surged in the final days to stun the political world and overtake Attorney General Martha Coakley. Some 2.2 million voters cast ballots in that first-ever statewide special election.

“I think we will struggle to get 2 million this time,’’ Galvin said. The lowest turnout for a Senate race in recent memory was in 1982 when 2.1 million voted.

Whalen, the BU professor, said he doesn’t think the voter apathy toward Tuesday’s Senate race stems from an electorate weary of campaigns. He said the candidates, Markey and Gomez, are not the sort of inspiring political figures Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren were to their supporters in their hotly contested race last year.

“The two candidates lack charisma and spark and are not getting voters to rush to the ballot box,’’ Whalen said.

The jammed-up political campaigns are in part created by the 2004 law when Democrats in the Legislature, seeking to deny Republican Governor Mitt Romney the power to fill a vacancy if Kerry won the presidency, created a special election system.

One of the authors of the law, Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett, said he did not anticipate that the new system would add significantly to the crowded election schedule.

“It is a surprise we would have these grouped together,’’ Straus said. “But I still think the benefit to the democratic process outweighs that. ‘’

“If we have a low turnout, that’s the fault of the election,’’ he said “It is reflective of something else going on among the population. It’s never too much to ask the citizens to stay engaged and to be following the process by which their political leaders are selected.”

The balloting Tuesday was made necessary when Kerry, who was first elected senator in 1984, took over as Secretary of State in February. The only other special US Senate election ever held in Massachusetts was in 2010 to fill the seat made vacant by the death of Edward M. Kennedy, who had held the post for nearly 47 years.

Frank Phillips can be reached at