Massachusetts Senate Special: Symbolically Significant, Practically Irrelevant

No matter who wins today's special election for Massachusetts Senate, Democrats will continue to enjoy large majorities in the legislature. But, Democrats would love to pry away the seat previously held by Scott Brown, the state's new Republican U.S. senator.
by | May 11, 2010

In practical terms, it's hard to imagine an election being more irrelevant than the special election today for state Senate in Massachusetts' Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex District.

Democrats still will have a lopsided majority in the Massachusetts Senate regardless of which party wins today. The seat will be up again in November anyway. Today's winner will only serve a few months and probably have next to no impact on public policy. There's a decent case to be made that the fiscally conservative thing to do would have been to not hold a special election at all.

However, no one is calling this seat the "Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex District." They're calling it Scott Brown's seat. As a result, today's race has symbolic significance. Apparently, no one cares as much about symbolic significance as Massachusetts' political parties -- with the possible exception of high school English teachers. From the Associated Press:

Democrats still are stinging and Republicans still giddy over Brown's stunning victory in the race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, and his subsequent rise to national folk hero status among GOP faithful has Democrats hoping that recapturing Brown's old legislative district would be -- if nothing else -- a moral victory and a Republican momentum stopper.

"I wouldn't deny that it has some special significance," John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said of Tuesday's special election.

Significant, Walsh added, considering the seat previously was held by "THE Republican, THE Scott Brown who can generate tens of thousands of people in Arizona for John McCain, and he's jetting to Hawaii and Pennsylvania and all that stuff."

Then again, you could make a case that the symbolic significance of this race gives it practical significance. Perhaps another victory will further enliven Republicans. They'll have hope of making real gains in Massachusetts and more of them will volunteer their time and donate their money to other candidates.

That, anyway, is a flimsy enough excuse for me to spend a little time talking about it. And, since both parties are actively contesting the race, it's a decent gauge of where Democrats and Republicans stand in Massachusetts, even if the result doesn't materially change where they stand.

That's especially true because Brown's seat is just the sort of one that Republicans will need to win if they're ever going to make significant inroads in Massachusetts. It leans Democratic and, in fact, elected a nationally noted Democrat prior to voting for Brown. But, it's somewhat less Democratic than the state as a whole.

For the Coakley-Brown race, Dave Wasserman put together an awesome spreadsheet (there is such a thing) of the 2008 presidential race by town in Massachusetts. Using that spreadsheet, here were the results of the two-party vote in Brown's Senate district.

 Scott Brown's Senate District

Note that the first total only includes the results in the towns that are completely in the district. The second total includes all of the votes from the partial towns, meaning it includes some precincts that aren't actually in the district. I'd need precinct-level data to really tell you how many votes Obama and McCain received in Brown's seat.

Still, I'd say it's pretty clear that Obama's percentage in the district was in the upper fifties. Obama won 63% of the two-party vote in Massachusetts.

This chart also helps clarify to me why the Boston Globe described Needham as a key to the race between Democrat Peter Smulowitz and Republican Richard Ross. Needham, as you can see, is a large, loyal Democratic bastion that is completely within the district. Smulowitz is from Needham too, so you'd expect he'd do great there.

However, Smulowitz lost Needham in the Democratic primary against a local state representative -- he won the nomination by winning the rest of the district. Today's vote may hinge on whether any bruised feelings have healed.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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