On Tuesday, Scot Lehigh of The Boston Globe anointed two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed former Congressman Marty Meehan, who has resigned from Congress in order to become the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
The two frontrunners are Niki Tsongas, Dean of External Affairs at Middlesex Community College and the widow of former Senator Paul Tsongas, and Eileen Donoghue, who is a City Councillor and sometime Mayor of Lowell.
While I believe that Scot Lehigh is often a sharp-eyed observer of the Massachusetts political scene, I think he has overreached in this case. What we have in this election - and particularly in the race for the Democratic nomination - is a multi-candidate race with most of those candidates currently serving in elective office. Four of the five Democrats currently hold office. In addition to Eileen Donoghue, there are three state representatives: Jamie Eldridge (D - Acton), Barry Finegold (D - Andover), and James Miceli (D - Wilmington). Each of these - except for Miceli, whose district is outside of the Fifth Congressional District - has a built-in base of support. In a race where someone could win with 21 percent of the vote, one should not rule out anyone who has the kind of base of support that either Eldridge or Finegold has.
One can look back as an example to the 1998 election in the Massachusetts Eighth Congressional District, when Michael Capuano first went to Congress. Capuano, who had been the Mayor of Somerville, won in a crowded Democratic primary field in large part because he capitalized on his electoral base in the City of Somerville.
While Donoghue and Tsongas led in fundraising during the first quarter of 2007, Rep. Finegold was not far behind them - close enough to be competitive with them. While Rep. Eldridge lagged in fundraising, he seems to be ahead in organizing progressive activists - many of whom supported Governor Deval Patrick's campaign last year.
The Fifth Congressional District is quite diverse and far-flung, ranging from the cities of the Merrimack Valley - Lowell and Lawrence - to the northwestern suburbs of Boston - including Acton, Concord, and Sudbury. What could emerge is a series of two person races: Tsongas vs. Donoghue in Lowell, Finegold vs. Donoghue in Lawrence and Methuen, and Eldridge vs. Tsongas in Acton, Concord, and Sudbury.
What makes this dynamic particularly hard to predict is that the special primary is now scheduled for September 4 - the day after Labor Day. Apparently, given state election laws and the date of Rep. Meehan's resignation, this was the latest date on which the primary could be held - and state election officials felt a September 4 election was better than one in August. (Why Congressman Meehan chose to time his resignation in this way is a question worth asking.)
In any case, turnout might not be high on the day after Labor Day. As is the case in any low turnout election, victory will go to the best organized candidate. It's impossible to tell at this point who that might be.
UPDATE, September 4, Primary Election Night: Look here for election night results.
UPDATE, October 10: The Eisenthal Report has endorsed Niki Tsongas for Congress.