Eager political candidates wait for dominos to fall

A. JOSEPH DeNUCCI Auditor since 1987, his retirement creates a statewide vacancy. A. JOSEPH DeNUCCI
Auditor since 1987, his retirement creates a statewide vacancy.
By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / December 3, 2009

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With open seats plentiful and the public unhappy with the status quo, 2010 could be the year competitive elections make a comeback in Massachusetts.

South of Boston, contested races are possible for as many as a dozen legislative seats, as well as key county posts. Two and possibly three open statewide offices next year should cause a domino effect, creating openings in lower-level offices as politicians try to climb the elective office ladder.

“It’s shaping up to be a year like none that I’ve ever seen,’’ said state Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who first ran for elective office in 1990.

And according to Kenneth Manning, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth: “For incumbents of all stripes, 2010 is going to be a tough year. People are unhappy with the direction of the country.’’

For decades, elections in Massachusetts have held little drama. Incumbents in most districts are reelected unopposed, in large part because of the Democratic Party’s dominance. In 2008 only 17 percent of Massachusetts House of Representative seats were contested, the lowest rate in the nation.

State Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci announced recently he will not seek reelection, and state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill will give up his office to run for governor.

Democratic state senators Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton and Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford both have been eyeing the auditor’s post. If either decides to run for the office, state representatives who live in his district would be potential candidates for the Senate seat. Selectmen, city councilors, and other municipal officeholders would then be potential candidates for any open state representative seats.

Norfolk County Treasurer Joseph A. Connolly, a Weymouth Democrat, is running for state treasurer. Connolly is in the middle of his county term and does not have to give up the position while campaigning. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman of Newton also has announced his candidacy for treasurer.

The attorney general’s post also would become vacant if incumbent Martha Coakley wins the special US Senate primary on Dec. 8 and the final election on Jan. 19. Coakley has a lead in the polls in that contest.

Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating, a Sharon Democrat, has said he will run for attorney general if Coakley moves on to Washington. Democratic state Senator Michael W. Morrissey of Quincy and Democratic state Representative Joseph R. Driscoll of Braintree have said they plan to seek the Norfolk district attorney post if Keating does not seek reelection.

The state Senate seat Morrissey would give up is expected to draw interest from Quincy Democratic state Representatives A. Stephen Tobin and Bruce J. Ayers. The Senate district includes Quincy, Holbrook, Rockland, and Abington, and part of Braintree.

“House members tend to have a leg up in a Senate race,’’ Morrissey said.

If Ayers or Tobin runs for Senate, then one or more Quincy city councilors would probably run for the House. If Driscoll runs for district attorney, town councilors from Braintree are expected to compete for the House seat he has held. Braintree Town Councilor Dan Clifford said last week he is exploring a run for state representative and expects to make an announcement after the Dec. 8 Democratic primary for US Senate.

A similar chain reaction could occur in the southwest suburbs in the district of Republican state Senator Scott Brown of Wrentham. Brown is a candidate in the US Senate election, and he would give up his state Senate seat if he wins the US Senate contest or if he loses that race and decides to seek another statewide office in the fall.

Elsewhere in the region, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas P. Hodgson, a Dartmouth Republican, faces a challenge this year. Democratic state Representative John F. Quinn of Dartmouth and Democrat Alan D. Garcia, a retired State Police trooper, also from Dartmouth, have announced bids for the sheriff’s post.

Democratic state Senator Marian Walsh of West Roxbury, who was embroiled in controversy last year when Governor Deval Patrick tried to appoint her to a high-paying executive post, could face opposition from within her party or from a Republican. State Representative Michael F. Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat, said he is considering running for the Senate seat next year.

The combination of open seats and potential voter unrest because of the troubled economy has emboldened the state Republican Party, which sees 2010 as a possible comeback year.

The Norfolk County Republican Club recently held a special program in Braintree to introduce the party’s candidates for statewide office and to recruit candidates for other posts.

“We’re off life support and are walking on our own,’’ said Thomas Gorman, a GOP activist from Dedham. “We have candidates now. It’s going to be like 1990.’’

In 1990, Republicans ousted dozens of incumbent Democrats in state and county offices and came within four seats of taking control of the state Senate. Massachusetts then was in an economic crisis, and state government was reeling from huge budget deficits and sharp tax increases.

Since then the state GOP has fallen into decline and now holds no statewide or congressional offices and only a handful of seats in the Legislature.

State Representative James M. Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat and member of the Democratic State Committee, said that while voters are uneasy now, the situation is different from 1990.

“In 1990 people were angry. There wasn’t an understanding like there is now that the rest of the country and the world are going through these economic difficulties,’’ he said.

Because so many government openings depend on the outcomes of other elections, few politicians have officially declared their candidacies.

“Nothing has been announced formally because no one wants to be presumptive,’’ said Steven Fradkin, a Democratic State Committee member from Stoughton. “It’s not been a hard sell at this point.’’

Unofficial campaigning has been intense, however.

“People are burning up the phone lines to line up support,’’ said state Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat.

Although the election is not until the fall of 2010, starting early gives candidates an advantage, particularly with regard to fund-raising.

“There are an awful lot of people trying to raise money in a difficult time,’’ Joyce said.

Robert Preer can be reached at