MA04 The Love of God: How Jake Auchincloss won the 4th congressional district primary.
Newton City Councilman Jake Auchincloss
On September 4th 2020, the Associated Press finally made a projection regarding the most chaotic and confusing Massachusetts election of the year. No, it wasn't the Senate race between Senator Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy III, it wasn't the 1st congressional race between Representative Richard Neal and Mayor Alex Morse, and it was certainly not the 8th congressional race between Representative Stephen Lynch and Robbie Goldstein.
The most confusing election in the Bay State this year was the 4th congressional district Democratic Primary. This district opened up after it's previous representative, Joe Kennedy III, announced his intention to run for Senate and decided not to come back even if he lost. Because representatives from Massachusetts tend to stay in their house seats for quite a long time once they are elected, the district became a honeypot for twelve candidates: twelve at the beginning of the year, and eventually narrowing to seven on primary day. It was a fierce and complex battle about who would be the best candidate for the district, and come election night, the results were close, REALLY close. It was down to the wire between Newton City Councilman Jake Auchincloss and former Brookline select board member Jesse Mermell, with only around 1500 votes separating the two. But after three days of checking ballots, and finding some that were outstanding, Auchincloss was declared the victor, much to the joy of some and frustration of others in the district.
So how did the Newton City Councilman do it? Was there a secret to his victory? What factors came into play? What does this mean for the district as a whole?
Understanding the District
THE FOURTH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT CIRCA 2013
In order to understand what happened, we need to look at the district and the candidates themselves.
The district of MA04 comprises three major parts. The northern half, which contains towns and cities of Norfolk county such as Newton, Brookline, Needham, and Wellesley, the southern half, containing places in Bristol County such as Fall River, Somerset, Attleboro and Taunton, and the middle part, containing a mix of both such as Medford, Sharon, and Franklin. These three areas are all similarly liberal in terms of policy, but quite different demographically.
In the north, you have affluent, higher educated, social issue driven voters, who are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Medicare for All, and dramatic climate action. The south has working class, less educated, and fiscal issue driven voters who while liberal as well, would be more focused on economic development and wages. The middle portion is a mix of these voters, with some social issue voters and some fiscal issue voters being scattered across the towns and cities.
How Auchincloss Won
In a normal, two person race, a candidate would most likely win by having high turnout in the areas that have the most engaged voters and the areas with the highest population. In this case, that would be the Newton-Brookline area. Now for candidates such as Barney Frank and Joe Kennedy III who used to hold this district, that was the dominant strategy. Both came from the area and had high name recognition to build up a machine there. For candidates such as Jake Auchincloss, however, this posed a challenge. Auchincloss, despite being a Newton City Councilman, who scored an endorsement from the Boston Globe, would still have to deal with a crowded race in Newton and Brookline, with all the candidates coming from that area. Auchincloss would have to look elsewhere to build a lane, and the ideal place for him would be the south.
Labeling himself as a "pragmatic progressive," Auchincloss spent a majority of his campaign time and money in southern towns and cities, including Attleboro, Somerset, New Bedford, and most noticeably, Fall River. The city councilman separated himself from the rest of the pack by reaching out to more center left voters, talking about fiscal issues such as life science development in Taunton. He also ran on his service in the military, and as there are many more military families in the southern part of the district compared to the north, this became an easy appeal to many voters there.
It also helped that the councilman spent a decent amount of money in the area, with advertising and mailing blitzes in the area thanks to Auchincloss's massive fundraising bank, having around 1 million dollars at the end of the campaign. The only other candidate to nearly match Auchincloss in terms of a "southern strategy" was Newton City Councilwoman Becky Grossman, who actually beat Auchincloss in Attleboro on election night.,Still, Auchincloss managed to clean house in many other surrounding towns, especially Mansfield and Taunton.
How Mermell Came Up Short
Former Brookline Select Board Member Jesse Mermell
So yes, Auchincloss's southern base strategy paid off, but why didn't Jesse Mermell win? Surely due to the amount of voters in the northern and middle parts of the district she could pull out a win against Auchincloss? Well Mermell actually did do very well in the northern area, including a surprise wipeout in Brookline despite the amount of candidates vying for that city. Yet, it was not enough.
Despite getting star power endorsements from Attorney General Maura Healey and MA07 Representative Ayanna Pressley, the former Brookline Select Board Member faced two major roadblocks: a crowded field, and a lack of money. The former was a massive handicap for Mermell as many candidates did not drop out of the race to get behind a singular person. Because of that, Mermell could not get crucial votes to put her over the edge in the northern suburbs such as Needham and Wellesley. It also did not help that she could not build a strong support in the south, despite endorsements from Paul Feeney and Becca Rausch, two state senate members who both represent Attleboro. The latter issue of fundraising was also a big problem. Mermell released only one television ad in the campaign, and could have benefited from more fundraising in the finance quarters.
The race is far from over however, as now Jake Auchincloss has to take on Republican Col. Julie Hall from Attleboro, who has recently shifted farther right in terms of rhetoric, and has slammed Auchincloss as a "socialist." Of course, even though Auchincloss is quite liberal on some issues including support of the Green New Deal and has stated that he will try to reach out more liberal voters in the north, that is far from the truth. Many political analysts have rated this race as Safe Democrat, due to the liberal turnout machines in Newton-Brookline and Fall River, and I would have to agree based on history.
Regardless, it is interesting to see a Democrat in MA04 run on a southern base strategy instead of the traditional northern strategy. If Auchincloss wins, I would suspect he would want MA04 to be based more on the southern area if it is heavily redistricted, or maybe he will move more left if the demographics don't look too rosy for him in 2022. Only time will tell what kind of representative the city councilman will be.