As Massachusetts Senate Race Gears Up, Will History Repeat Itself?

The last time Massachusetts held a special Senate primary — back on Dec. 8, 2009 — turnout figures underscored why the Democratic nominee initially was the heavy favorite to fill the seat Ted Kennedy had occupied until his death earlier that year.

Almost 669,000 votes were cast in the Democratic race won by Martha Coakley. By contrast, Scott Brown snagged the Republican nod in a primary that attracted about 165,000 voters. Given that disparity in party affiliation, how could Brown even dream of winning the special election a month later? He did, of course, catching political lightning in a bottle and defeating Coakley, 52 percent to 47 percent.

With John Kerry leaving the Senate to become secretary of state, Massachusetts Democrats have vowed to avoid a repeat of three years ago. Yet their plans to hang onto Kerry’s seat may be complicated by an intra-party skirmish.

new poll of the state’s Democrats shows that in less than a month, support for the frontrunner, Rep. Ed Markey, has dropped by 9 percentage points while backing for his main challenger, fellow House member Stephen Lynch, has risen by the same amount. With more than two months remaining until the April 30 primary, that’s not a trendline that Markey, who Kerry has endorsed, wants to continue.

Markey had 43 percent in the latest survey, compared with 28 percent for Lynch.

A tightening battle between the two could leave a disspirited losing side that undercuts enthusiasm for the winner. That could be a moot point. With Brown taking a pass on running in the latest race after losing to Elizabeth Warren last November, some Massachusetts political observers are skeptical that any other Republican can gather by next week’s deadline the 10,000 petition signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

State Rep. Dan Winslow, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, are trying to clear that bar. Assuming Republicans are able to field a candidate, the party’s nominee will start out with little statewide name identification and face long odds in the June 25 special election.

Massachusetts voters have seen that scenario before, and responded to it by surprising the nation.

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