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It's One Of The Hottest Races In Mass! Will Voters Notice?

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Candidates for Congress in Massachusetts’s third district—where Niki Tsongas is retiring after 11 years in office—have a narrow window left until the notorious summer political doldrums set in.

That’s why things are starting to heat up in the race, a long four months before the primary. Rufus Gifford has spent money on mailers. Dan Koh is running television ads. Berlin Democrats and UMass-Lowell held candidate forums last week; next week features forums in Fitchburg and Haverhill.

Candidates and their advisers are worried that if they haven’t broken through with voters at least a little bit before summer starts, they’ll be stuck as anonymous members of the pack until it’s too late.

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer for many, is now just three weeks away. Lawrence public schools finish for the year on June 15; Lowell’s run a little later.

It’s tough enough for any candidate to get public attention during summer months, when Massachusetts residents take advantage of the good weather to get themselves out of their homes, and if possible out of the district altogether.

That task figures to be especially daunting for this array of interesting but little-known Democratic contenders, lost amid a sea of a dozen others. A recent UMass-Lowell/Boston Globe poll found that even among likely primary voters, barely a third say they are following the race somewhat or very closely, and most have no favored candidate yet.

Thanks to the strange and unfortunate scheduling of the primary on September 4th—the day after Labor Day—there is no post-summer campaign stretch. The final weeks before the election, when candidates normally spend their dough and their time swamping voters with ads, mail, phone calls, and door-to-door canvassing, will occur in late August, when people are away enjoying their final family flings.

So, it’s tempting to spend some of that money now instead.

It seems to have paid off for Gifford. His district-wide mailing went out just before the UMass-Lowell/Globe poll started. It was probably responsible for boosting him up to 11% in that poll—enough for first place, which earned him a round of media coverage, which in turn probably boosted his standing even further.

It’s possible, as some folks with other campaigns suggest, that the Gifford campaign did this intentionally, guessing that UMass and the Globe would do a poll before their April 29 debate. More likely it was just fortuitous. Regardless, the sequence of events has elevated Gifford into top-tier status, in the eyes of the media and many voters.

Barbara L’Italien, who was second with seven percent in that poll, also heads toward the summer with top-tier perception. As a state senator, she has a solid base of Andover-area support, along with campaign experience and infrastructure. (Disclosure: L’Italien’s polling is done by a national firm where my sister, Ruth Bernstein, is a partner.)

But her attempts to separate herself as the lone viable woman in the race have thus far been thwarted—in large part, again, by that one poll.

L’Italien would love to get the endorsements of prominent Democratic women and women’s groups—particularly EMILY’s List—before summer sets in. That appears unlikely. Although such groups, and Tsongas herself, have expressed a strong desire to see a woman win the primary, they currently seem unwilling to take sides while other women in the field seem like they also have a chance.

That single public poll, which even some insiders with rival campaigns say probably understated L’Italien’s position, took on even greater importance due to a controversial decision taken by UMass-Lowell debate organizers.

To avoid an overcrowded stage, they cribbed from what Republican Presidential debate organizers did in 2016: split the candidates into two panels, based on poll results. With only one public poll available—their own—that’s what organizers used to determine the groups.

Six poll leaders were placed together in one panel: Gifford, Koh, L’Italien, Alexandra Chandler, Juana Matias, and Lori Trahan.

The others—Jeff Ballinger, Beej Das, Leonard Golder, Patrick Littlefield, Bopha Malone, and Keith St. John—were relegated to an earlier debate.

Given the small levels of support for any of them, and the large majority of respondents with no preference, it’s awfully hard to make a strong case for dividing the candidates this way. Malone’s two percent, for example, was almost statistically indistinguishable from Chandler’s three percent.

Nevertheless, the result was to strongly suggest, in the highest-profile campaign event to date, a top tier and bottom tier of candidates that could leave a lasting perception. The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune ran an article about the second debate only, with no mention of the earlier one.

The debates themselves were lively, with candidates emphasizing their personal stories in their attempts to stand out. With relatively little difference on policy, they clearly hope to show that their backgrounds and passions make them most likely to vigorously pursue voters’ interests in Washington.

Similarly, the new Koh television ad emphasizes his family history, and ties to the district. As do web ads from other candidates in the race

Territorial decisions

The upcoming forum at Fitchburg State University, sponsored by the Lowell Sun and Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, will split the groups into two panels, but by random drawing rather than poll numbers.

That event, and a FLAP-TV (Fitchburg-Leominster All Politics) debate on the 13th, give candidates a chance to sell themselves to the western, Worcester County section of the district before summer begins.

None of the candidates live in that area, or seem to have a strong advantage there, since Steve Kerrigan of Lancaster withdrew from the race.

Gifford is hoping to take advantage: his campaign just officially opened a Fitchburg campaign office, his first satellite location to complement this Lowell headquarters. “I think the Worcester County part of the district will be decisive,” Gifford told me in a recent phone interview.

Koh, on the other hand, is looking north, with plans for an official opening of a Haverhill office this weekend—coinciding with a May 7 forum hosted by Haverhill Democrats.

Haverhill and Methuen, just north of Lawrence and Andover, figure to be a battleground area for Chandler, Das, Koh, L’Italien, and Matias, who all live in the area.

And everybody will try to play, to some extent, in greater Lowell, home to Trahan and Malone.

And then there’s the southern section of the third congressional district—“Jamie Eldridge country,” as I think of it.

That’s a stretch of relatively upscale, liberal towns, including Acton, Ayer, Boxborough, Concord, Hudson, Littleton, Marlborough, Maynard, Shirley, Stow, and part of Sudbury. All but Concord are represented by liberal state senator Eldridge, who ran unsuccessfully for the congressional seat in 2007.

Eldridge has not endorsed yet; other prominent progressive individuals and groups could also hold sway in those communities.

But mostly, candidates will need to sell themselves. If you’re curious about what territories the candidates are staking out, keep a close eye on their busy meet-and-greet and house party schedules over the coming few weeks—while people are still around to attend them.

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