On Workhorses and Reelection

The last two times there was an open Senate race in Massachusetts, 1984 and 2010, a member of Congress jumped into the race.  Ditto the last time (1978!) the Democrats overtook a Republican Senate incumbent.  Not so in 2012.

David  Mayhew’s classic text, Congress: The Electoral Connections asserts that the primary goal of a member of Congress is reelection.  Everything else flows from that.  The Massachusetts delegation if fairly entrenched.  No members have been defeated for reelection since two Republicans lost their bids in 1996.  Last year’s election scared only Barney Frank who then safely won his district.  Suffice to say, when a Democrat is elected to the U.S. House from Massachusetts, they have a hold on their seat for a very long time.

And time brings seniority.  Members who stay in the House have some options: to become policy experts ( a “go to” person in a particular area), assist and cultivate relationships with the leadership, assiduously work on behalf of their constituents at home, or attempt all three.  Or they can immediately set their sights higher, a la John F. Kennedy in the 1950s. 

To date, the Massachusetts delegation seems bereft of what Donald Matthews referred to as pure “show horses,” those uninterested in the details of legislation and policy process.  Andrew Card, when meeting with my students last May in Washington, described two types of legislators: those the White House knew to call for assistance, advice, information, and those nobody ever suggested calling.  Ted Kennedy was in the first group; Ron Paul in the latter.  “No one ever suggested calling Ron Paul to see what he thought about an issue,” Card declared. 

It is not surprising that, even before redistricting, not one member of the delegation opted to take on Scott Brown.  Even before Elizabeth Warren’s ascent, only whispers could be heard.  Taking on Brown would have meant giving up a sure thing for something much less sure.  And politicians like stability for stability helps goal number one, reelection.  Now that they have districts with new cities and towns, look for them all to focus like a laser on their new constituents and largely avoid statewide speculation.  Those with an edge next time around for statewide office will be those already there (Tim Murray) and those who have tried recently (Mary Connaughton, Tom Conroy if he can’s stop Warren).

A final note on John Tierney.   The GOP made the decision to nominate a second tier candidate against Tierney in 2010.  They have the option of making that mistake again in 2012 but should they opt for a tier one candidate, they may have a chance.  But Tierney has worked his district hard and has cultivated the leadership of the House and boosted his profile over the last few years.  The scandal surrounding his wife and her family will hurt, to be sure, but may not be fatal.  Like most Americans, the residents of Tierney’s district like their member of Congress while disliking the institution of Congress.  This has been true for a very long time and has saved many a member during moments of political upheaval.  It may yet save Tierney if he can demonstrate that he is not personally corrupt (no evidence there so far) and that the scandal has not distracted him from representing his district.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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