Not so fast, Democrats; Steve Lynch has appeal

Steve Lynch arrives in Worcester Jan. 31 to kick off his bid for the US Senate seat formerly held by John Kerry.
Steve Lynch arrives in Worcester Jan. 31 to kick off his bid for the US Senate seat formerly held by John Kerry.

Ed Markey is anointed to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat; Steve Lynch dares make a challenge. Chances are the chosen one gets the job, but don’t count out Lynch — he’s faced odds like these before, and beat them.

With Kerry’s departure, the Democratic Senate primary looms, just two-and-a-half months away. That’s a short span of time for a candidate to create an organization, raise money, make himself known, and — because this is a special election — persuade people to come out and actually vote. Markey, a US representative first elected in 1976 to represent a district encompassing much of Middlesex County and other suburbs north and west of Boston, had a solution: Do away with the primary altogether. Borrowing a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook, he tried to clear the field of challengers and focus instead on the June 30 final.

It almost worked. Markey announced for the seat on Dec. 27. A day later, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed him, as did Victoria Kennedy, the late senator’s wife. Kerry also made clear his support (in a curious statement that sounded like an endorsement but he said was not). Others who had been sniffing around at the race took umbrage. US Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville said, “It seems that the big names of our party are trying to choose our nominee for us,” and had some defiant words about not being intimidated.


But brave language notwithstanding, Capuano decided not to make the run. And indeed Lynch entered late and only after much hemming and hawing.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Many think the nomination is Markey’s for the taking anyway. He has more money — $3.1 million to Lynch’s $740,000 — as well as a one-month lead in putting together his campaign. Combine that with his support from party leaders and his reliable “progressive” brand of politics — the kind Bay State Democrats seem to favor — and Markey’s advantages appear considerable.

The polls reflect that. A late January survey from Public Policy Polling called the match a “blowout,” showing Markey with 52 percent to Lynch’s 19 percent. Moreover, while Markey has generally high favorability ratings from Democrats, Lynch’s numbers are low, with slightly more Democrats perceiving him negatively (28 percent) than positively (27 percent).

Given this grim news, why is Lynch in the race at all? The blithe answer, I suppose, is: That’s why they hold elections. Right now, everything is prognostication. By April 30, things may look much different.

For one, both men really are unknowns. Members of Congress may be household names in their districts — each of which is roughly 11 percent of the state’s population — but they are largely unknown elsewhere. For the two candidates, much of the campaign will involve introducing themselves to that remaining 89 percent. Today’s perceptions of each candidate may change greatly, especially as the two confront each other in debates.


Further, while Markey attracts liberal Democrats, Lynch — a former ironworker and union leader — has appeal of his own, especially to blue-collar workers. He’s less wine and cheese than he is beer and brats. Lynch’s politics are more conservative than Markey’s as well. (“Conservative” in this case should be understood to mean that in other states, Lynch would still be regarded as a left-winger.) There are moderate Democrats in the state — as well as unenrolled voters, who can choose to vote in party primaries — that could well go his way. Then there is Boston Mayor Tom Menino. If Menino gets his campaign organization involved in the race, and if he favors Lynch, the Boston vote could be a game-changer.

Finally, there is Lynch himself, a man who has never fit comfortably with others’ stereotypes of what he should be and how he should behave. That was evident in his 1996 run for state Senate, when he dared challenge Billy Bulger’s handpicked successor (that is, his son). It’s evident as well in his votes in Congress. Depending on your perspective, he’s either brave and unconventional or just unreliable and erratic, but either way, he’s clearly not in anyone’s pocket.

That, I suspect, becomes the theme of Lynch’s campaign. Markey is the party’s favorite son, the pick of the Washington, D.C., establishment for the Bay State’s next senator. Massachusetts’s voters can meekly follow their lead or, Lynch will argue, show some gumption and decide for themselves.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com