By Matt Murphy and Michael Norton
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — Running unopposed in November and with little to no business to conduct during the final three months of the 2011-2012 legislative session, two thirds of state senators can look forward to a quiet fall and holiday season before sliding back into office Jan. 2.
Aside from the outcomes of three races for open seats and a handful of potentially competitive campaigns being waged by Republican challengers, the 2012 state Senate elections are shaping up as snoozers across Massachusetts. Districts including more than 4.4 million residents have only one candidate on the ballot.
Senate President Therese Murray’s rematch against tough opponent Tom Keyes, and the battle of Andover between Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. Paul Adams, and former school teacher Dean Cavaretta’s bid to oust Sen. Jamie Eldridge are three of the races GOP party officials say warrant attention.
Republicans hold only four of the 40 seats in the Senate, but the GOP is fielding challengers in only eight districts and one of its members – Sens. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth – is among the 10 incumbents who are being challenged this year.
Twenty-four Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans are running unopposed on Nov. 6.
“It’s tough to run for the state Senate generally because of the larger nature of the district and it costs more money to get your name out there. But we have some good candidates out there who are willing to put their names on the ballot,” said Peter Blute, the former Congressman and state representative and current deputy chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
Blute said Republicans can realistically hope to pick up three or four state Senate seats across the state as he named six candidates whose chances the party is enthusiastic about. “It’s a tough election year. All presidential years swell somewhat more blue than gubernatorial years,” Blute said.
The open seats created by the retirements of Sen. Frederick Berry (D-Peabody) and Sen. Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln) and the mid-term departure of Sen. Steven Baddour (D-Methuen) have generated a great deal of the campaign season buzz in the Senate.
Salem City Councilor Joan Lovely emerged from a crowded Democratic field in September to face off against Beverly Republican Richard Jolitz for the seat Berry has long held on the North Shore.
Vying to replace Fargo is former senator Michael Barrett, who is trying to complete his comeback against perennial Republican candidate Sandi Martinez, of Chelmsford. Blute said Martinez is a known commodity in the district against an insider Democrat in Barrett. “I’m not sure they picked the best candidate,” Blute said, pointing out the strengths of Democratic runners-up Joe Kearns Goodwin and Mara Dolan.
Newburyport City Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives also scored somewhat of an upset in the Democratic primary and is heading into November against Haverhill Republican Shaun Toohey, a mortgage banker and city School Committee member.
“I know he’s a quality candidate, knows what he’s doing. Our best candidates, our most successful candidates are those who have done it before and paid their dues in the minor leagues,” Blute said. Blute also noted that Toohey’s father-in-law is former Haverhill Mayor Bill Ryan who could make a difference in the race.
The dynamics in that First Essex District are complicated by the presence of unenrolled James Kelcourse and Independent Paula Magliocchetti, setting up a rare, four-way general election fight.
Running unopposed are Sens. Benjamin Downing, Michael Rodrigues, Daniel Wolf, Thomas McGee, Bruce Tarr, James Welch, Gail Candaras, Michael Knapik, Stanley Rosenberg, Patricia Jehlen, Katherine Clark, Karen Spilka, Sal DiDomenico, Richard Ross, Brian Joyce, John Keenan, Michael Rush, Marc Pacheco, Thomas Kennedy, Jack Hart, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Harriette Chandler, Jennifer Flanagan, Stephen Brewer, and Richard Moore.
Rob Gray, a Republican political consultant who worked on candidate recruitment efforts under former Govs. Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney that yielded few gains, said presidential election years in Massachusetts are a particularly difficult climate for new GOP candidates.
Gray also said recruiting strong candidates is “tough for Republicans right off the bat” because their enrollment numbers are so small and Democrats control the redistricting process every 10 years.
“There aren’t too many legitimate and capable potential Republican candidates who opt to run for the first time in a presidential election year when the numbers are that much worse for Republicans,” Gray said.
The rematch between Murray and Keyes, who were separated by 5 points two years ago, is viewed as potentially favorable this cycle due to both Keyes’s previous performance and the strength of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in that region of the state. Murray lives in Plymouth and Keyes in Sandwich.
Other incumbents facing challenges include races between Sen. James Timilty and Jeffrey Robert Bailey, of Attleboro; Sen. Eileen Donoghue and James Buba, of Lowell; Sen. Kenneth Donnelly and Gerry Dembrowski, of Woburn; Sen. Anthony Petruccelli and Thomas Dooley, of Boston; Sen. William Brownsberger and Steven Aylward, of Watertown; and Sen. Michael Moore and Stephen Simonian, of Auburn.
Blute said Cavaretta’s race against Eldridge, who is a liberal Democrat in a district that voted for Brown in 2010, holds promise. “I’d say one of his biggest assets is he’s been endorsed by former Gov. Paul Cellucci who’s pulling out all the stops,” he said.
Blute also noted that Adams is working hard for votes in his race against Finegold, even going into traditionally Democratic precincts in Lawrence to try to squeeze out support. Simonian, an Auburn selectman, faces an “uphill battle” against Moore, according to Blute, but is an “animal” when it comes to door knocking.
Republican candidates across the state are hoping to take advantage of Brown’s field operation put together as part of the senator’s tough re-election fight against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, but Gray said it’s unlikely that the state GOP will see a quick return the early days of the Weld administration when there were 16 Senate Republicans.
“There were literally a few guys who were just names on the ballot who won state Senate seats (in 1990) and were one-termers never to be heard from again. That was a 50-year political storm in Massachusetts,” Gray said.
Gray said that in order to overcome the built-in challenges for Republican candidates in Massachusetts, the party must seek to find the right candidates and match them with the right seat during the right year and make sure they are well financed. He predicted SuperPACs would play a more active role in local and state races in coming cycles following the Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited contributions and spending.
“You get a lot of people who decide they want to run for political office and decide they want to run for Congress and they don’t have a chance in h-e-double hockey sticks, as Mitt Romney would say. A lot of these people could win a state Senate or state representative race,” Gray said.
Gray said repealing the state law that allows unenrolled voters to remain unenrolled after voting in either party primary would be one way to encourage higher Republican Party enrollment and widen the potential pool of candidates.
“The revolution is a long way away and might never come in the near term,” Gray said.