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June 03, 2016

The citizens of Massachusetts subsidize and lend support to the two main political parties. It would seem a minimal expectation that, in return, the parties might produce nominees to compete in most legislative elections.

According to data released from the Secretary of Commonwealth’s office, two-thirds of all legislators face no opposition this year.

The reasons for the lack of competition are numerous and complex:

• An enduring truth of American politics is that citizens dislike the legislature (or Congress) but really like their representative. That’s one reason why relatively few are ever dislodged.
• Separation of powers makes party building difficult under the best of circumstances. Our two main parties have multiple centers of power and authority that are not always cohesive.
• A two party system defined by geographically based districts and first past the post, winner takes all elections, discourages challenges.
• Republican Governor Charlie Baker and Democratic leaders in the State House are actually interested in governing the Commonwealth and finding common ground.   It may not be best for governance to cooperate across the aisle by day and find and run opponents at night.  It certainly isn't easily done.
• Campaign finance and ballot access rules favor incumbents, another reason why so few are dislodged.
• People with full-time jobs and good careers in diverse fields are not likely to want to take on the task of running for a legislative seat where the odds of winning are as low as the salary if you do.

These reasons are not new, and it’s unreasonable to expect that any one party leader can overcome such obstacles and produce a full slate of candidates at every cycle.

And the lesson of Mitt Romney in 2004 is still raw. Romney chose to run a statewide legislative race that focused on the GOP’s core message of reforming Beacon Hill. “We are looking to turn the momentum around," said Romney’s chief strategist.

It didn’t happen. A lot of money, energy, and time went into the 93 GOP candidates for the House and 28 for the Senate. The result? Dismal for the Republicans.  Rather than implementing a long term strategy for creating a farm team, the GOP basically gave up.  And it continues to show as the Democrats are the one party largely driving what competition exists in legislative races. For example, the only intra party skirmishes (3 in the Senate/18 in the House) this year are within the Democratic party.  Republicans have zero and are challenging less than 10% of House Democratic incumbents.

The landscape is not without competition but the overall numbers, two-thirds of legislators without opposition, are dismal.

Let's also posit that for various systemic and historical reasons, candidate recruitment is an often-thankless task. But perhaps the health of our democracy is too important to leave to the recruitment capabilities of party leaders and organizations.

We subsidize the parties by paying for primary elections. The law mandates this, so the parties are not themselves to blame. Still, taxpayer funded non-competitive primaries producing candidates for non-competitive general elections is a mockery of democracy

A democratic system that allows an overwhelming majority of its legislators to go unchallenged is not worthy of the name. Elected officials should face competitive elections. All of them.  At least more than one third of them. Not because they aren’t deserving of returning to office but because the public good is served by the competition of ideas that electoral contests can produce.

Facing the people at the polls for their democratic stamp of approval is essential to our system. If the parties cannot fulfill their basic obligation to produce nominees and if the systemic issues that prevent adequate candidate recruitment are too great to overcome, perhaps we need to study alternative ways of organizing our democracy.

2016 elections, Massachusetts legislature, political parties

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