After five terms in Congress, representing Lowell, the entire Merrimack Valley, Route 2 towns out to Gardner, and the Route 495 belt from there to the Mass Pike, Niki Tsongas will not seek re-election. I admit that I did not see this coming, and it seems that no one else saw it either. So what now happens to the 350,000-odd voters of the 3rd Congressional District ? Let’s take a look.
In state elections, this region is often winnable by Republicans. Not so much when the election is national. Governor Baker easily carried its towns and either won or came close in most of its cities. Scott Brown in 2010 and Gabriel Gomez in 2013 also won the District. That said, few communities in the 3rd District voted for Donald Trump: Dracut, Tyngsboro, Pepperrell, Townsend, Ashburnham, Ashby, Winchendon, Westminster. Of these, only Dracut, Winchendon, and Ashby gave Trump a win by more than two or three points. I doubt seriously that any Republican who seeks this Congress seat can do much better. Trump’s favorable and unfavorable numbers in Massachusetts right now could hardly be worse : only 25 percent approve, 62 percent disapprove.
Any Republican who wants to campaign for this seat faces at least three obstacles all but impassable : ( 1 ) will he or she vote for Paul Ryan as Speaker ? If so, he or she carries Ryan’s un-Massachusetts agenda on his or her back. ( 2 ) does he she support Trump or was he or she is the Trump campaign ? If so, game over. ( 3 ) If he or she has zero connection to Trump and commits to not voting for Paul Ryan as Speaker, what, exactly, will his or her platform be, that his or her likely Democratic opponent cannot advocate more convincingly or with a longer record of elective office ?
Within the District reside several Democratic office holders significantly well liked across the state : Senators Jamie Eldridge of Acton, Eileen Donoghue of Lowell, Jen Flanagan of Fitchburg, and Kathleen O’Connor Ives of Methuen; and State Representatives Jen Benson, David Nangle, Natalie Higgins, Kate Hogan. (Brian Dempsey of Haverhill — who would have ben the obvious choice — left the legislature perhaps too soon, and Stephan Hay of Fitchburg only just won a special election as State Representative.) Add to this list the wife of former Congressman Marty Meehan (now chancellor of the University of Massachustts system), and you’ve assembled a long bench of major league electeds.
There are two Republicans who have plenty of star power too : State Representative Sheila Harrington of Groton and Rick Green of Pepperrell, who was the choice of many to be Senator Warren’s Republican opponent but decided not to run. Will he now seek a lesser post, albeit without an incumbent to face ? Perhaps. Will Harrington give up her very safe seat State House seat to climb the hill of disadvantage ? Maybe. If neither of them runs, it will be difficult to find a Republican who has large name recognition, is well liked in the state as a whole, and can credibly surmount the obstacles I have already assessed.
Which leaves the many, many Democrats who would all be formidable final election favorites but who cannot all run. Something has to give.
Historically this has been Lowell’s seat in Congress — reliably Republican until Paul Tsongas won it in 1974, but Lowell no matter what the party label. Which spots the light on Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representative David Nangle, and Marty Meehan’s first wife, Ellen Murphy Meehan. (See the Boston Globe : https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/08/09/ellen-murphy-meehan-thinking-about-running-for-marty-meehan-old-seat/axgmhxvTeQQeusSrt8r1CL/story.html) And on many other Lowell politicians, not overlooking State Representative Rady Mom.
That said, the District is no longer restricted to Greater Lowell. Lawrence has a claim — Mayor Dan Rivera has plenty of statewide credibility and has been a go-to advisor to Governor Baker, and if he runs, he will, or should, be a formidable presence — and the Fitchburg-Leominster-Gardner area has at least as much population as greater Lowell. Then there’s the high tech communities of the Route 495 belt, from Westford and Littleton to Acton and Hudson, Marlboro and Bolton. The Senator who represents this area, Jamie Eldridge, is perhaps the best known and most followed “progressive” in the entire state and has “fighting Congressman” written all over him.
My own guess is that Lowell activists will settle on one candidate : Ellen Murphy Meehan, that progressives will insist Jamie Eldridge run, despite the District’s decidedly centrist leanings; that Dan Rivera will, unfortunately, not go; and that none of the Democratic State Representatives will enter the contest, but that there will be one surprise candidate if not two. Of these — plus Sheila Harrington if she runs — who will win ? It’s much to early to say, but unless Ellen Murphy Meehan has some major impediment in her resume, she’s the one to beat — though in my opinion as a centrist reformer, Sheila Harrington would be the most broadly representative voice for a District far less progressive than Jamie Eldridge’s supporters hope.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere