Progressive groups are making a late push to block a former Republican from taking advantage of a divided field of left-leaning candidates and winning a safely Democratic seat in the Boston suburbs on Tuesday.
Rep. Joe Kennedy’s decision to abandon the seat, which includes a mixture of high-income suburbs closer to Boston, college towns and the old textile city of Fall River toward its southern end, created a massive primary field. Progressives now fear Jake Auchincloss, a Newton City Council member and former campaign staffer for popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, will win the seat with a relatively small percentage of the vote while five more liberal candidates split the progressive vote.
“Auchincloss is the Charlie Baker candidate. He has moderate positions on most things and will change his stripes as necessary,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, a communications professor at Boston College and a progressive activist. “There’s no reason that Auchincloss would stand a chance if there were not so much division.”
Auchincloss’s advantages, in fundraising and in public polling, have created a late push to unite behind Jesse Mermell, a former Brookline Select Board member and communications aide to former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. The Working Families Party, a New York-based progressive group, endorsed her on Friday. Two former candidates who dropped out of the race also endorsed Mermell earlier in August. (Sienkiewicz, who lives in Brookline, is backing Mermell as well.)
The race illustrates the danger of the wait-and-see approach many left-wing groups take to primaries. Though Democratic establishment groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, often endorse early to rally resources to their preferred candidates, many progressives worry that early endorsements short-circuit the Democratic process and limit choices for voters.
But that approach has harmed the left in multiple races this year. In Colorado’s Senate race, for instance, a slew of more liberal candidates were bickering among themselves while the DSCC recruited moderate former Gov. John Hickenlooper and then quickly endorsed him. Hickenlooper easily won the primary.
The most glaring example was in New York’s 15th District, where Ruben Díaz Sr., a New York City councilman and evangelical pastor with a history of homophobic and pro-Trump comments, threatened to win in a district former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won with 94% of the vote in 2016. A similarly late push there lifted New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres to victory over a deep field of progressives and liberals in the June primary.
The failure to quickly consolidate shows how, even as left-wing groups grow in electoral sophistication, they remain unwilling to adopt some of the win-at-all-costs tactics employed by the Democratic Party’s establishment. Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said the group can’t always endorse early.
“Each district and its race, there’s so many factors and variables, it’s hard to make a blanket statement,” he said. “We want a unified left, and we want to do the early work and early organizing when there’s a truly progressive candidate. But there’s nothing structurally wrong with a robust, multi-candidate primary.”
Mitchell noted having multiple progressive candidates in a race is a sign the movement is growing: “The root of this is not bad. The more AOCs, the more Cori Bushes and the more Jamaal Bowmans you have, the more people are going to think they can run for Congress and city council.”
In Tuesday’s race, Mermell and Auchincloss are joined by Ihssane Leckey, a former Federal Reserve regulator who is running as a socialist; Newton City Council member Becky Grossman, the daughter-in-law of former Democratic National Committee Chair Steve Grossman; Alan Khazei, the co-founder of the educational nonprofit City Year; and epidemiologist Natalia Linos.
A poll released Monday, conducted by RABA Research for the news outlet Jewish Insider, found Auchincloss and Mermell essentially neck-and-neck, earning 23% and 22% of the vote, respectively. Grossman was earning 15%, while 11% were backing Leckey and 10% were unsure.
Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, conducted an earlier August poll showing Mermell and Auchincloss in a virtual tie. He said there were clear similarities between June’s battle in New York’s Bronx and Tuesday’s battle in greater Boston’s Brookline.
“You have the right-wing Dem who nobody wants. You’ve got the Dem Party hack. You’ve got the [Democratic Socialists of America] candidate who has no experience and does not have much of a reputation for doing a lot of organizing,” he said, referring to Auchincloss, Grossman and Leckey.
But he said Mermell, like Torres before her, was likely to emerge from the race: “And then you’ve got someone who has been doing politics for a decade and a half, is progressive to her bones but doesn’t do enough posting of the variety that makes the online left happy. In both cases, you’re seeing consolidation around the viable candidate.”
Auchincloss jumped out to a lead on the back of a spending advantage: He had raised $1.7 million as of the most recent Federal Election Commission reporting deadline and was the beneficiary of more than $500,000 in spending from a super PAC funded, in part, by his parents. But he also separated himself by highlighting his military service, running on a more moderate platform and promising to push gun control policies.
But not long after the Boston Globe’s editorial board endorsed him, his opponents began highlighting a history of less-than-liberal and at times offensive comments. He once compared the Confederate flag to a gay pride flag. As a college student, he wrote of the Quran: “[S]o we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?” He’s since apologized for the remark.
Mermell has the backing of Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents an adjacent district, state Attorney General Maura Healy and of a number of labor unions, including the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the SEIU Massachusetts State Council. Her ads have played up those endorsements and emphasized her support for abortion rights, the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”
The progressive consolidation is not total. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) had backed Grossman in June, while Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) endorsed Leckey in July. Leckey ended up preemptively rejecting the endorsement of the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, after the group announced in August that, as part of its process, it was seriously assessing recent allegations that the candidate had mistreated her campaign staff.
And many other progressive and left-wing groups, including Justice Democrats, Democracy for America and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, are remaining neutral.