Friday, September 17, 2010

Primary postmortem.

I very rarely post anything directly political on this blog, and for good reason. Once in a while, though, I feel the urge to present some electoral commentary. Though I long ago renounced the political ambitions of my youth, the political bug that remains somewhere in my bloodstream still makes itself known from time to time like a once-acquired virus that suddenly strikes again after years of lying dormant in the body. Given that much of my practical work experience before entering the Jesuits was acquired in legislative offices and on political campaigns, I can still identify with the individuals who run for and hold elective office and the people who go to work for them. I accordingly follow events like Tuesday's primary election with greater-than-usual interest, as I know how exhausting, exhilarating and all-consuming primary campaigns can be.

Following up on a story that I took note of on Monday, brothers Oliver Cipollini, a Democrat, and Charles Cipollini, a Republican, have both won their respective party nominations for the same seat on the Massachusetts Governor's Council. Making his second bid for the Governor's Council, Oliver Cipollini captured about 27% of the vote to win the Democratic nomination over four rival candidates. Oliver actually won substantially fewer votes in this race than he did in his losing campaign two years ago, when he was the sole challenger to four-term incumbent Carole Fiola; a larger field of candidates and name recognition left over from the last campaign seems to have helped Oliver prevail this time around. Unusually, Oliver also had the public support of an ostensible rival: his older brother Charles has stated that he ran as a "fallback" in the Republican primary in case Oliver failed to secure the Democratic nomination. Some observers are now fuming at the outcome of a race that has turned into an amicable, non-competitive campaign between two brothers, but the fact that the Cipollinis were able to pull it off strikes me as fairly remarkable.

As I followed the vote returns on Tuesday night, one little-watched race caught my attention: the primary contest between U.S. Representative Barney Frank and Rachel Brown, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche perhaps best known as the woman who blasted Frank at a public forum for supporting what she called a "Nazi policy" - President Obama's health care plan. Sizing Brown up as a crackpot, Frank responded that "trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table." Little did Frank know that that conversation would eventually take place: Brown says that she decided on the spot to challenge the fifteen-term congressman, and the two actually met in debate last week. On Tuesday night, Frank beat Brown by a sixty-point margin.

Despite the magnitude of Frank's victory over a token opponent, Frank consultant Dan Payne felt compelled to spin the results, claiming that he "was surprised at how big a margin it was." On the contrary, it seems surprising to me that a fringe candidate like Brown managed to win a fifth of the vote against a thirty-year incumbent (as GOP pundit Todd Domke quipped, "one out of five Democratic primary voters opted for the dining room table"). Perhaps some voters were trying to tell Barney that thirty years is enough. On the other hand, Frank's mocking dismissal of Brown may have backfired with a portion of the primary electorate and generated a sympathy vote for his foe: to some voters, Frank may have looked like a bully picking on an eccentric yet ultimately harmless oddball. A third possibility is that some kind of "Alvin Greene effect" was operative, with inattentive voters choosing Brown even though they had no idea who she was.

The general election race between Barney Frank and Republican Sean Bielat should be worth watching. Massachusetts Republicans and national conservative groups have been getting excited about Bielat, who has presented himself as Frank's strongest challenger in decades. As a district native, I can reliably report that Frank's constituency is neither as uniformly liberal nor as Democratic as popular pundits and the national media might suppose. Barney Frank is regularly re-elected because his staff is attentive to constituent service and because he delivers on local issues; in other words, his political longevity owes much less to his ideology than it does to his ability to get things done. Frank's district went for Scott Brown in January's special election, and the fact that Bill Clinton is coming in to stump for Frank suggests that the incumbent is taking nothing for granted. I have yet to see any polling done on the Frank-Bielat contest - I suspect that some internal polls have been done at the behest of the campaigns, though none of the results have been released to the public - but I think that a competitive race would be a good thing for district voters who have grown unaccustomed to suspense.

The six and a half weeks between now and the general election should be a particularly exciting time for the political junkies among us. Though the fall election season often leads me to reflect on my own history of political involvement, this time of year always leads me to a deeper sense of gratitude for my religious vocation: I still retain a keen interest in the details of campaign strategy and organization and I fully intend to keep vigil on Election Night as the votes come in, but at this point in my life I'm quite content to simply observe the political process from the sidelines.

For me, there is a great grace in knowing that I'm happier in the classroom than I would be in on the campaign trail. I strongly believe that public service can be a noble and personally fulfilling vocation, but I've also found that some who devote their lives to politics plod along without ever admitting (perhaps even to themselves) that they would be be more fully alive if they were doing something else. I'm grateful that I got out of the political game when I did, but I'm still sympathetic to the players who remain in the game, including those who may be in it for life. Between now and Election Day, I'll be praying for them and for their consolation. AMDG.


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