WASHINGTON — The failure of Republicans to field a candidate in six of nine US House races in Massachusetts makes this year one of the least competitive congressional election seasons in a half century or more, highlighting how politically stagnant the state has become and leaving Democratic incumbents wondering what to do on the campaign trail.
Barring a phenomenal write-in campaign, the only thing most members of the state’s delegation have to do to be reelected is keep breathing until November.
“Look it, I was fully prepared for a campaign. And I expected one. It just didn’t happen,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester who is running unopposed in both the primary and general elections. “For the sake of our democracy, it’s not a bad thing to be challenged. . . . But my job is not to find myself an opponent. That’s somebody else’s job.”
Given the state’s 2011 redistricting — in which some 60 percent of the district became new territory for him — McGovern said he thought the GOP might consider him vulnerable, and find someone to run against him. “If I was in the opposition,” he said, “I would go after me at this point.”
But no one did, and the filing deadline has passed.
Analysts said the lack of competition is a stinging indictment on the state’s lack of political competitive vibrancy. By comparison, every Massachusetts incumbent in the US House faced either primary or general election opposition in 2012. In 2010, months after Scott Brown’s surprising US Senate victory, Republicans fielded candidates in all but one congressional race.
“That’s kind of sad,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst who closely tracks congressional races. “It means either people don’t care, or the idea of beating an incumbent is so foreign that no one even bothers.”
The lack of competition in Massachusetts is part of a national trend that has resulted in fewer seats being challenged, even as congressional approval ratings have reached all-time lows. It reflects a variety of factors, including growing political apathy, the role of redistricting in creating partisan districts, and the struggles of finding candidates.
“What’s happened in the last 10 years is a hardening of the arteries as far as where it’s possible to take over seats,” said Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, a group that has called for several election law reforms.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan tracker of federal elections, rates 43 races — just 10 percent of those around the country — as competitive. (One of them is the seat held by Representative John Tierney of Salem.) The number of districts likely to swing between Democrats and Republicans has fallen from 164 in 1998 to 90 today, a 45 percent decline.
It is difficult to track how many candidates have no challengers this year, since the filing deadlines have not passed in some states. But on average, 47 seats in the general election have gone uncontested over the past 30 years. If that number holds for this year, it would mean Massachusetts — which accounts for 2 percent of House seats — will have at least 11 percent of the uncontested races.
The lack of competition in Massachusetts is in part due to a redistricting process run by the Democratic-controlled Legislature following the 2010 US Census. The party controlling redistricting traditionally divides up the territory in a way that protects its majority, district by district. Republicans called for an independent commission to oversee the process, but the State Senate rejected the measure by a 34-to-5 vote.
“These districts are so carefully drawn that they’re not competitive,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who also supported an independent commission. “People run when they think they can win. Even if they’re misguided in that belief, you have to believe you can win to run.”
Although there is little talk of altering the Massachusetts process, some states have adopted new election systems as a way to spur more competition. California, for example, adopted a primary system called “top two” because the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, even if they are of the same party.
The dearth of competition in Massachusetts is even more stark at the state legislative level. Massachusetts was among the least competitive in the country, with only 33 percent of legislative races contested, according to a College of William & Mary study.
It is a far cry from where Republicans in Massachusetts hoped to be. In 2004, under former governor Mitt Romney, the party attempted to run challengers in nearly every State House legislative contest, only to lose seats in the process. When Scott Brown won a US Senate seat in 2010, it seemed to herald a new day for the state GOP.
Now Brown, after losing his 2012 reelection bid, has moved to New Hampshire to run for US Senate.
Rob Cunningham, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said the GOP was focused on the handful of races where it has been able to field competitive candidates.
Republican Richard Tisei is running for the seat held by Tierney, who is also facing a Democratic primary challenge.
Four candidates are running in a Republican primary to challenge Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat. They are Mark Alliegro, John Chapman, Vincent Cogliano, and Daniel Shores.
Ann Wofford is seeking the Republican nomination in the Third Congressional District to face Democratic incumbent Niki Tsongas of Lowell.
(On the Senate side, Brian Herr is running against Senator Edward Markey.)
“I really do think that the single biggest consideration is the way the deck is stacked for the power of incumbency, for congressional races especially,” Cunningham said. “It’s just a stacked deck.”
The field is likely to get even less competitive.
Representative Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who recently won a special election to hold the seat formerly held by Markey, has a Democratic primary opponent — Sheldon Schwartz — but no Republican qualified for the ballot.
Some incumbents view the lack of challengers as a testament to their hard work, attentiveness to their district, and connection with constituents.
“Honestly, I don’t think of it in much terms other than that I break my hump all the time,” said Representative Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Somerville. “I stay as close as I can to the district.”
Capuano has been challenged in only two out of seven campaigns since he won the seat in 1998. In his liberal district, he is worried only about a primary challenge, which has not materialized.
“I’m raising money and telling people, it’s unlikely I will need much of it myself,” Capuano said. “A fair amount of money I’m raising now, I intend to donate to candidates who need it more.”
It means many delegation members are facing odd situations: Without any opponent, do they still hold town meetings, shake hands with voters, and send out the usual desperate fund-raising appeals? Do they still print lawn signs and bumper stickers?
“I’m sure we’ll do some of that,” said Representative Joseph Kennedy III, a Democrat from Brookline who has no opponent in his second run for office. “I haven’t totally figured out what the options and strategy will be going forward.”
Indeed, if they wished, the unopposed incumbents could go months without having to shake a hand, kiss a baby, or pass out lawn signs. Frantic fund-raisers, debate prep, and poring over the latest poll? Not needed.
In addition to Capuano, Kennedy, and McGovern, the other candidates without any challengers are Stephen Lynch of South Boston and Richard Neal of Springfield.
Independents have until Aug 26 to file for the general election ballot, but such candidates don’t have a strong track record of mounting significant challenges.
Kennedy says he is still acting like he has a campaign to run. The other day he had just left Attleboro and was on his way to meet the town manager in Foxborough, recounting the advice of his uncle — the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
“One of the things I remember my uncle saying to me is, ‘You’re running for the position and not against the opponent. And without an opponent you still make the case why you’re the best person to be serving that district,’” he said.
But what is it like running for reelection without someone running against you?
Kennedy laughed. “It’s a good problem to have,” he said.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.