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Ellen Murphy Meehan will not run for Tsongas congressional seat

Ellen Murphy Meehan greeted performer Billy Joel along with husband Marty Meehan, in 2012.UMass Lowell

The decision Tuesday by Ellen Murphy Meehan not to run for Congress has thrown open the race for the seat now held by Democrat Niki Tsongas — and could be a big break for Republicans.

That is the analysis of experienced political observers with knowledge of the congressional district that Democrats have held for 42 years.

“She would have been a very formidable candidate and probably the leader out of the gate,’’ said Steven Panagiotakos, the former Democratic state senator from Lowell. “This really shakes up the race. Now it is pretty wide open.”

Meehan, the former wife of University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan, would have received significant help from the political teams of her ex-husband, who was the district’s congressman for 15 years, and of Tsongas, whose campaigns she had cochaired.


A host of potential candidates have declared interest since Tsongas announced last month she would not seek reelection to the seat she has held since 2007.

One, Daniel Koh, an Andover native who just resigned as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of staff, announced minutes after news broke of Meehan’s decision that he was creating “an exploratory committee,’’ a formality before launching a candidacy.

Walsh, in an interview, said he had taken the unusual step of endorsing in a party primary after coming to know Koh during his City Hall tenure. The mayor, who campaigned with Koh at Monday’s Labor Day breakfast in Boston, said he would likely get further involved in the race after the November mayoral election. Walsh said he planned on “reaching out” to former legislative colleagues.

Meehan’s withdrawal also has cleared the way for a Meehan loyalist to get into the race and make use of her husband’s political crew and advisers. Lori Loureiro Trahan of Westford, who served as Martin Meehan’s congressional chief of staff, is expected to take a serious look at running for the Democratic nomination, those close to her confirmed.


Trahan, a 43-year-old business consultant, is a Lowell native with roots in the city’s civic and political communities. After serving on Meehan’s staff, Trahan coordinated the congressman’s fund-raising efforts.

Meehan’s absence from the race may also put pressure on state Senator Eileen Donoghue, a Lowell Democrat, to run.

“I am certainly getting a lot of calls,’’ said Donoghue, who said she is giving a serious look at a congressional campaign. “I like the job I have so these aren’t easy decisions.”

Donoghue lost to Tsongas in a close primary in 2007, and now, political insiders say, 10 years later, may be hesitant to make another run.

Meanwhile, the political development offered a glimmer of hope for the Republicans who dominated the district for decades until Paul Tsongas, the congresswoman’s late husband, won the seat in 1974. Rick Green — a wealthy businessman from Pepperell and former Republican state committeman who created and helped finance a fiscally conservative advocacy group, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance — tweeted late Tuesday that he planned to form an exploratory committee.

“This is their best shot at a Massachusetts congressional seat they have had in years,’’ said Dan Payne, a Democratic political consultant and a veteran of Massachusetts congressional campaigns.

He noted that the district’s population — particularly in the urban areas in and around Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill — has become more conservative, while its 2011 redistricting has added more GOP-friendly communities west of Lowell.


“Even the Democrats in that district are conservatives,’’ Payne said. “If the Republicans don’t field a strong candidate, that is their loss.”

In her statement outlining her reasons for not running, Meehan, a health care consultant, said it was more important for her to continue her work helping community hospitals and medical providers across the state.

“While this is a district whose challenges and people I know well and would be honored to represent, I am playing an important role advocating for health care providers and hospitals who don’t get paid fairly by health plans, and face challenges that the state and federal government are partnering with them to solve,’’ she said in a statement

Her former husband — the two remain close despite their divorce two years ago — had helped her work through her decision over the weekend at their Seabrook, N.H., beach home.

“I have mixed feelings because Ellen would be an outstanding member of Congress and I think Washington needs people with her clear thinking and substantive approach to the issues and challenges facing the country,’’ Meehan, the former congressman, said.

By the end of the Labor Day weekend, Meehan had made her decision and placed a few important calls Monday night, including to Tsongas and US Representative Richard Neal, the dean of the Massachusetts and New England delegations.

Tsongas represents the Third District, which stretches from Gardner to Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill, and south to Hudson and into the southern Middlesex County communities around Concord and Acton.


Other well-known Democrats looking at a run include Steve Kerrigan of Lancaster, the party’s lieutenant governor nominee in 2014; state Senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover; former state senator Barry
Finegold of Andover; and Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini.

Kevin Wardrobe of Andover, who was a Trump delegate to the national convention, is another possible Republican candidate, according to GOP sources.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.