Running hard against the Scott Brown effect

Congressman McGovern is proving no easy target for resurgent GOP

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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MARLBOROUGH — US Representative James P. McGovern approached a table of four women lunching at Welly’s, an upscale downtown pub here, offering the eager smile and handshake of a politician trying to hold onto his job.

When McGovern and his entourage moved on, the women quickly turned back to their pizza, but the conversation stayed on politics.

“There should be term limits,’’ Maureen Matott said. “It’s the same people doing the same thing.’’

Her friend, Darlene Archibald, nodded. “We need young, new faces, new ideas,’’ she said. “Something has to change.’’

McGovern, a Democrat who has represented the Third Congressional District since 1997, has been getting a lot of that these days.

His district, which includes largely Democratic Worcester but also a number of more conservative surrounding towns, voted overwhelmingly for Republican Scott Brown in the race for the Senate in January, 58 percent to 41 percent. And McGovern is facing a wider field of challengers than ever before. It adds up to one of his toughest reelection battles to date.

It is a familiar storyline this year as the all-Democrat House delegation from Massachusetts adjusts to a volatile political climate. Incumbents are being forced to defend their records and fend off an energized Republican Party, hungry for another blue-state upset. Though analysts predict that most, perhaps all, of the seats will remain in Democratic hands, McGovern and his colleagues are not taking any chances.

McGovern has 35 times more money in his campaign fund than any of his six challengers, but he is promising an aggressive push to get his message to voters. He has brought back a former top aide and state senator from Worcester, Edward Augustus Jr., to run his campaign.

“This is an unpredictable year,’’ McGovern said in an interview. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration.’’

His chief Republican opponents, Brian Herr, a former Hopkinton selectman, and Martin Lamb, a Holliston lawyer, are seeking to tap into that voter resentment. Lamb said he wants to “clean the House’’ of incumbents and institute what he calls his “lamb chop plan,’’ which would cut spending in Washington, take back unspent funds that the government appropriated to rescue big banks and automakers, and prohibit such bailouts in the future.

“I would not have voted for these things,’’ he said.

Herr is pushing term limits — “six terms is enough,’’ he says — and the repeal of the national health care law. He wants to cut the size of federal government, including reducing oversight by the US Department of Education, and returning more power to states and local governments.

“The federal government is much bigger than the founding fathers ever envisioned,’’ Herr said.

Political analysts generally do not consider the race competitive. In fact, David Wasserman, US House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said he doesn’t think it’s a race at all.

“The voter angst is worth a couple points,’’ he said. “But Republicans need more than a couple of points to beat Democrats in Massachusetts.’’

Tim Sahd — editor of House Race Hotline, based in Washington — agreed, despite the upset victory of Brown just months ago. “While the dynamics may exist for a potential Scott Brown effect, the pieces aren’t there yet,’’ Sahd said of McGovern’s race.

But the Massachusetts Republican Party warns against underestimating its candidates, asserting that voter frustration is so high right now, no seat is safe.

“That’s exactly what happened with Senator Brown’s race: ‘Oh, no, no, he doesn’t have a shot,’ ’’ said party chairwoman Jennifer Nassour. “It’s unfortunate that just because it’s Massachusetts, Republicans are pushed to the side and not being given credit for being contenders. I think we have some great candidates.’’

For their part, Lamb and Herr said they expect their fund-raising to pick up after the primary on Sept. 14, in which they will face off against Robert J. Chipman of Plainville, Robert A. Delle of Westborough, and Michael P. Stopa of Holliston. Independent candidate Patrick Barron of Worcester has also thrown his hat in the ring for the Nov. 2 general election.

McGovern, an unabashed liberal who once made headlines for subsisting on a food stamp budget for a week and has twice been arrested for protesting atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region, blames voter anger on the economic collapse and protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which he said can be traced back to the failed policies of the Bush administration.

McGovern said he and other Democrats were forced to clean up the economic mess with federal stimulus money, bailout loans for auto manufacturers and banks, and the recently passed financial regulatory overhaul.

“There was an emergency, and to the credit of this president, we responded,’’ he said.

As for Iraq and Afghanistan, McGovern said, “One of the reasons I want to go back to Congress is I want to end those wars.’’

McGovern said voter anger is further fueled by misinformation. He recalled one Worcester man demanding that McGovern name one thing that federal stimulus money has done for that city. McGovern said that he ticked off a list of jobs saved, from teachers to firefighters, and that the constituent was won over.

“Part of the problem right now, you turn on the radio or television news, and you get bombarded with negativity,’’ he said. “It’s all kind of in your face.’’

McGovern doesn’t plan to change his beliefs or stance on the issues in the wake of Brown’s victory, he said. Besides, he joked, he doesn’t have a pickup truck, a spread in Cosmopolitan magazine, or a full head of hair.

“Just because Scott Brown won an election doesn’t mean I should change everything I believe in, ’’ he said. “It’s no secret that I’m a liberal; I didn’t poll any of this stuff, but I am who I am.’’

As McGovern made his way down Main Street in Marlborough on a recent weekday, some residents waved and wished him well.

“Good luck, congressman,’’ one man called out from a nearby bench.

McGovern, popping into local businesses and greeting constituents, did not ask how people felt about the economy. Rather, he asked if things were better than last year.

“It’s picking up a little bit,’’ said Miriam Lena, owner of Passion for Fashion, where the clothes are all priced below $25.

A clerk at Valente Music said instrument sales had gone down, while the president of Marlborough Savings Bank suggested things would be better if unemployment was not nearly 10 percent.

There was one business McGovern visited, however, that has thrived: Arthur & Sons Shoe Repair. It seems more people are getting their shoes fixed, instead of buying new ones.

Donovan Slack can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @donovanslack.


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