Will 2018 be a year of political change in Massachusetts — or simply a close call for the status quo?
That question looms in races for office from the federal to the local, from the high-stakes Seventh Congressional race pitting longtime incumbent Michael Capuano against City Councilor Ayanna Pressley of Boston to the race for the next Suffolk County district attorney.
Less than a month before the Democratic primaries — the de facto Election Day in many races here — the appetite for sweeping change evident in other places is far less evident. Maybe that’s a product of a contented electorate. Maybe voters will shock the pollsters on Sept. 4. But the wave, if there is one, feels far offshore at this point.
One case in point is the Capuano-Pressley race, in which Capuano continues to hold a double-digit lead in polls. Capuano started with a significant edge. And despite the star power of the most impressive opponent he has ever faced, every indication is that he is holding on to his lead. That isn’t to slight Pressley. Beating a popular incumbent — which she might well do — is one of the hardest things in politics.
Capuano and Pressley held the second of three debates last week at the University of Massachusetts Boston. (I was a co-moderator of the debate, along with Meghna Chakrabarti of WBUR.)
The candidates were similar in substance, but strikingly different in tone. Capuano repeatedly asserted the importance of experience, while Pressley argued that she would be a new voice, with a different emphasis. Commentators have consistently observed that they are not far apart on the issues, and that is true. If you put them in the same legislative body, they would vote together 95 percent of the time.
But votes are only one measure of two candidates. Capuano was every inch the Capitol Hill veteran, touting the resources he could deliver — and has delivered — to the district. Meanwhile, Pressley positioned herself as the vanguard of a movement — a movement of people who feel voiceless in Washington now.
Is that enough to topple a 10-term incumbent?
“She has to expand the electorate to win,” a longtime, unaffiliated political consultant said to me last week. “She’s running out of time to do that.”
Another generational battle looms in the race for Secretary of State. Challenger Josh Zakim — another Boston city councilor — is giving William Galvin the most spirited challenge of his 24 years in office. Running for an office that doesn’t naturally captivate voters, Zakim is arguing that he represents the “values” of the electorate more closely than Galvin.
In what may be a first for a secretary of state campaign, Zakim has touted his support of the right to choose, using Galvin’s votes to restrict abortion rights as a state representative in the 1980s as evidence that his older opponent is out of touch.
Galvin has said he doesn’t remember the circumstances of his votes decades ago. He also argues — rightly — that his position on the issue is irrelevant to this office. Still, it’s a clever move on Zakim’s part to separate himself and rally the younger and progressive voters he will need to win.
Finally, in the race to succeed Dan Conley as Suffolk County district attorney, there seems to be a growing sense that a field of progressive candidates may be effectively killing each other. As a result, Assistant District Attorney Greg Henning stands to benefit.
There are persistent rumblings that progressive voters should figure out a way to unite around a single candidate in that race — and that some of the candidates should consider dropping out to make room for one of the progressives to win.
The chances that any candidate would quit now — after months of fund-raising, door-knocking, and debates — are remote. But the angst that progresse activists are feeling is real. Less than a month out, the status quo appears surprisingly durable.