Analysis: Field to Replace Knapik Presages the Tenor of Campaign…
Day by day the race to replace Michael Knapik in the Agawam-Easthampton-Holyoke-Westfield aligned 2nd Hampden & Hampshire is taking shape. Earlier this week, a few more candidates entered the race while at least one prominent would-be contender bowed out. Rep. Aaron Vega’s decision to stay in the House was, in a lot of ways, a blow to Democrats, but by no means a fatal one.
The primaries for the election are slated for October 8, while the general will fall on November 5, which is also Election Day for the district’s cities. Agawam, Chicopee, Easthampton, Holyoke and Westfield all have elections this year.
Vega announced Wednesday that he would remain in the House and not compete in the special Senate election. He cited his and his wife’s new baby, due in mid-November, a commitment to finish out his Holyoke City Council term and a class he will be teaching at UMass-Amherst.
It was really bad timing, Vega told WMassP&I. Had it happened one or two years down the road, he might have been able to do it. However, with all the things happening in his life now, it was just not possible.
Vega admitted that he had more or less decided against a bid as soon at the time of Knapik’s announcement. Soon after, many in the grassroots and Senate leadership started actively encouraging Vega to consider the race. Indeed, the opportunity to work with President-in-waiting Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who will be the first Western Mass Senate leader in decades, was very tempting. The level of support “Really makes you think where you are at in your career,” Vega said in an interview.
The reasons why so many were breaking down Vega’s door are obvious. He was just elected overwhelmingly to the Holyoke House seat. Vega is associated with many of the Paper City’s revival efforts. Vega has also had citywide name recognition since his first municipal race in 2009. Amidst a competitive, but somewhat Morse-friendly mayoral race, turnout could rise in Holyoke especially among the city’s Latino community in which Vega’s late father, Carlos was a prominent activist. That only benefits Democrats
Both the grassroots and party fathers also could see Vega’s ability to appeal beyond his home base, which will be critical for Democrats to retake the seat after 20 years of Republican control. Vega himself noted that while his constituency is Holyoke, he denounces the area’s provincialism among municipalities.
Not having him is a loss for Democrats, but they do have other options. The Democratic side presently looks like retiring Easthampton mayor Michael Tautznik and Holyoke Ward 3 City Council David Bartley. Both have potential. The Sullivans of Westfield are sitting out this election, possibly consolidating capital for brother Richard’s ever-rumored run for Lieutenant Governor. Democratic sources do say Westfield may yet yield a fresh face with at least a modicum of name recognition. Christopher Hopewell, a Fire Commissioner in Holyoke may also join.
But before it is possible to fully evaluate the Democratic side, the Republican field must also be considered. The early word puts Westfield Representative Don Humason as the likely Republican nominee. He is a natural successor to Knapik, also a Westfielder, and will likely inherit his former bosses contacts across the district. Moreover, Knapik’s brother Dan, is running for reelection as the Whip City’s mayor and that race’s turnout could be leveraged to help Humason both in the primary (as practice) and in the general.
But at the moment is seems possible that Humason will not have the nomination without a fight. Perennial candidate Mike Franco of Holyoke, last seen losing a Governor’s Council race to former and discredited Springfield mayor Michael Albano, could jump in too. In the long run, it seems unlikely, even with wells of tea party support in the district, that Franco could beat the gregarious and popular Humason. Only a figure with credibility in winning elections like Rep. Nick Boldyga, who has shown no public interest in the race, could.
Still, it may force Humason to spend time talking about issues in a way that could become toxic during the general. Pro-choice and gay rights advocates are lining up against Humson, who also has not had to actively campaign for office in more than ten years.
Against this Republican environment, Democrats enter with their superior organizational skills in a district split between very friendly (Easthampton & Holyoke), swing (Agawam Chicopee & Westfield—the latter may go hard for Humason, but it voted for Barack Obama) and hostile (Westfield’s suburbs and the Hill Towns) territory.
At the outset, it would appear the lead goes to Tautznik who has quite a following in Easthampton and, like Vega, is a common presence at Democratic events. Chatter on Blue Mass Group has mentioned how Tautznik has engaged on a number of topics important to activists, helping with both fundraising and activism in a primary and the general.
However, Bartley, the son of a former Massachusetts House Speaker, may be able to tap into Holyoke’s power base, which if energized is a potent force in both the primary and the general. Figures like Alex Morse and others can help him raise the money he needs, which could tip the scales. The open questions are whether or not Bartley can excite the base outside Holyoke or if he can even solidify Holyoke starting off as a ward rep.
As Professor Maurice Cunningham says on Mass Politics Profs, campaigns are often subject to the trio of “known-knowns,” “known-unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” The first is easy it is that which campaign can expect and plan for. The second are the things they know they do not fully know or can plan for, but they do known they do not known it and what “it” is, if in an objective sense. The last one is the totally unexpected.
In this race because it is a special election, if one set to the rhythm of municipal general elections, attention will not be as high as in US Senate elections to which Prof. Cunningham refers. Therefore, the unknown-unknowns must be pretty spectacular to gain attention from the public and the media to have an impact. The known-unknowns likely will make the most difference.
Those appear to be the public’s reaction to Humason’s social conservatism and the public’s reaction to Beacon Hill, that is Democrats generally. In that district it seems as though the latter is a tough burden for any Democrat to carry (although Democrats there have seldom suffered permanent damage as a result). But without a creature of Beacon Hill in the race (FWIW Vega would be too new to have suffered from this, too), Bartley or Tautznik can probably dodge the worse of this.
Humason’s social conservatism then remains the another known X factor. On a purely philosophical level, it is very important,. Practically speaking, it may be easier said than done for Democrats to use this beyond getting reliable voters who agree with them to vote against Humason. Many pro-choice independents in Westfield have happily supported Humason despite this because they know that in Massachusetts, a Roe v. Wade backslide is improbable at best.
Indeed it seems bloody unlikely that either current Senate President Therese Murray or successor Rosenberg would even permit a vote let alone let it get anywhere near a majority of the Senate. This issue can be a valuable fundraising tool for Democrats, but with a 36-3 Senate, it seems unlikely at best Planned Parenthood or NARAL will fire up the PACs to go to war with the jolly Westfield Republican.
On gay rights there may have a bit more resonance, but against the impact seems limited. Humason is not a Bachmann-esque homophobe, but he did oppose marriage equality. Thus he would do well to avoid the subject as much as possible.
At one time, using gay rights as a political cudgel in Hampden County would be nearly unthinkable. For many years, political observers read regional social conservatism as hostile to the gay rights. In fact, most were merely indifferent to individuals’ private lives, gay or straight. Today Holyoke has a gay mayor and there are several high-ranking officials in the district’s municipalities that identify as LGBT. Keeping quiet on gay rights may not be enough for Humason, though. LGBT Democrats and their allies will make noise and maybe push up turnout in Democratic precincts.
That puts us back at the most important element. Organization. Vega did say that a based on the numbers because Holyoke is a Democratic stronghold, “a strong Dem from Holyoke give [a candidate] a strong head start.” In an interview last week, Vega had noted that voters cast 20,000 blanks rather than vote for Knapik, the only name on last year’s ballot for that seat. A candidate that preaches regional cooperation as Vega has (both in interviews and in his Wednesday statement) and fosters relationships the way Knapik did could come from anywhere and win.
For now, the race remains a tossup, but things could quickly change at any time.