Republican State Rep. Don Humason won a special election Tuesday to fill the Western Mass State Senate seat vacated by Republican Mike Knapik last summer. The editors of the Springfield Republican asked readers the following question about Humason’s win: “Do the conservative leanings of some parts of the district carry enough favor to keep the seat in Republican hands? Or, did Democrats just not work hard enough to reclaim the seat?”
The answer is yes. The “conservative leanings of parts of the district” do indeed (and did) “carry enough favor” for the Republican to win. And, the Democrats did not work hard enough to reclaim the seat. The more interesting question, however, is: Why didn’t Democrats work hard enough to reclaim the seat?
The Republican editorial quotes Democratic political consultant Matt Barron as saying “The dirty little secret of Democratic politics in Massachusetts is that when you are a Democratic incumbent in the House or Senate, you get taken care of. But if you are an open-seat challenger, you are on your own to a large degree.” I think there is definitely something to this, but I think there is an even dirtier little secret, which is that if you are an incumbent from either party in Western Mass, the Democratic heavyweights in the region will have your back, either by working for you or by not working too hard against you. The special election on Tuesday to fill the Second Hampden-Hampshire State Senate District seat was won by an 11-year House incumbent who, before that, was an aid to the Senator whose resignation created this open seat. Don Humason, despite being a Republican, had long established a friendly working relationship with the largely Democratic powers that be in Western Mass politics, who have long preferred cooperative Republicans they know to untried Democrats.
The most influential Democrats in Western Mass have no incentive to start fresh with a new Democratic State Senator. A Republican who has already proven his usefulness is just as (if not more) useful, and not the least bit dangerous thanks to the fact that Democrats enjoy overwhelming majorities in both Houses of the state legislature. When a guy like Humason votes his party’s line, it’s almost a win-win for the Democratic players in Western Mass who maintain “relationships” with the region’s state legislators. His party will lose in the chamber and depending on how high profile or important the bill was, his Western Mass Democratic patrons may feel entitled to some TLC. Republican legislators from Western Mass harmlessly flexing their conservative muscles every once in a while in order to keep the district’s conservative voters on board is just fine with the region’s more influential Democrats.
The reality is that Western Mass politics is clubby, but membership doesn’t depend on one’s party affiliation. Calling the region’s Democratic campaign organizers “lazy” in reference to their efforts on behalf of their party’s candidate in the Second Hampden-Hampshire race may be a bit unfair. It would be more accurate to say that they were “disinterested” in the fortunes of their party’s nominee. Mr. Bartley likely expected more assistance because of his family name, but family name doesn’t trump a record of cooperation, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Bartley were encouraged by prominent Western Mass Democrats to run for Humason’s House seat. In a race for one seat among 160, family name is probably worth a bit more than it is in a race for one of 40 seats.
CORRECTION: Bartley does not live in Humason’s house district, which forecloses the likelihood he’d consider or be encouraged to run for the vacated House seat. Nonetheless, the logic of my speculation on this point remains. (Thanks to the commenter who pointed out my error)