Tsongas Wins, But Not Convincingly

Niki Tsongas, the widow of the late former Senator Paul E. Tsongas, won a special Congressional election in Massachusetts on Tuesday night, but her narrow margin – a 51 to 46 percent win over Republican Jim Ogonowski – figures to provoke much discussion among the national political class today.

After all, we’re talking about Massachusetts, bluest of blue states, and a well-funded Democratic candidate who shares the same last name of one of the state’s most beloved politicians. And the Tsongas brand is particularly valued in the 5th Congressional District, which is anchored by Lowell, an old mill town of 105,000 where Paul Tsongas was born and spent his life.

So why the close call for Niki Tsongas?

Republicans will undoubtedly try to connect it to the Democratic Congress’ ghastly poll numbers, an effort to reverse the conventional wisdom that the G.O.P. will only be playing defense in the ’08 Congressional elections. Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be chalking it up to the uninspiring party machinery that backed Tsongas and, they say, caused progressives to stay home.

Both claims are wrong. Pelosi-bashing did not feature much in Ogonowski’s campaign, and the Democratic Congress is more unpopular with Democrats, mainly those on the left who most fervently oppose the war, than with independents. But Niki Tsongas’ troubles, as the town-by-town returns show, did not come in the district’s affluent, avowedly anti-war liberal bastions – placed like Concord and Acton where she thrashed Ogonowski. And turnout figures show that voters did not disproportionately stay home in the progressive pockets of the district, contrary to the assertions of some in the netroots : Comparatively, turnout was high in Concord, Acton and Sudbury. Had progressives been thoroughly disenchanted with Tsongas, these figures would be lower, as would her share of each town’s vote.

To understand what really happened in the 5th District – and why it’s not really a huge surprise or a harbinger of any kind – you must understand the nature of the district and its politics.

The 5th District is Democratic virtually across the board, save for a handful of very small towns where Republicans still prevail in most elections. But while towns like Concord and Acton are affluent and very progressive, they are more than balanced by working class suburbs like Methuen, Billerica, Chelmsford and Tewksbury, which are filled with more conservative-minded Democrats – voters who inherited their party registration, but often find themselves at odds with the party on cultural questions. Lowell, the city at the heart of the district, is also populated with similar voters. There are also a handful of commuter suburbs – like Groton, Westford, and Littleton – where residents tend to be educated and professional, but not as reflexively liberal as their counterparts in Concord and Acton. These commuter suburbs tend to favor Democrats in national elections, but often side with the G.O.P. in state contests.

Niki Tsongas did fine in the most progressive corners of the district, although she underperformed in Andover, and she held her own in the independent-minded commuter  suburbs. Her problem came in the working class, culturally conservative areas, losing every single town that borders the city of Lowell (there are five of them). And while she won Lowell itself, her margin there was underwhelming.

But none of this is a great surprise, because the voters who turned on Niki Tsongas have a history – going back more than three decades – of flipping to the G.O.P. in these types of races.

In 1972, for instance, a 29-year-old anti-war Democrat set up shop in Lowell and ran for an open Congressional seat as a Democrat. John Kerry was savaged for consorting with hippies and lost Lowell and the Congressional race – even as George McGovern was carrying Massachusetts.

The Republican who knocked off Kerry, the late Paul Cronin, was unseated in 1974 by Paul Tsongas, who was able to keep the Lowell area’s Democrats on board by convincing them that, culturally, he was one of them. Tsongas handed the seat off to another Democrat who passed the local litmus test (James Shannon) in 1978, and he held the seat until 1984.

But Shannon’s successor, a suburban progressive (from Concord) named Chester G. Atkins came within an inch of losing his seat in 1990 when he alienated the same Lowell area voters who turned on Kerry in 1972. Atkins’ infuriated them by pushing for the resettlement of Cambodian refugees in Lowell and nearby Lawrence, prompting outrage that a liberal do gooder was inflicting his cultural theories on cities that he and his friends didn’t live in and never visited. In November 1990, Atkins came within an inch of losing to an unknown, unfunded Republican named John Magovern.

Democrats restored peace with their Lowell area brothers and sisters in 1992, when Lowell’s Marty Meehan crushed Atkins in a primary, and Meehan never had trouble winning re-election. But when he left his seat earlier this year, those Lowell area voters were again up for grabs.

And, simply put, Niki Tsongas was unable to reach them, even with her name. It’s important to note that she hadn’t lived in Lowell – or the district – in recent years and that she did not grow up in the area either. She very nearly lost the Democratic primary in September, thanks entirely to her awful showing around Lowell, where a former Lowell mayor (Eileen Donoghue) bested her. Tsongas survived that primary thanks in no small part to strong suburban support – from the progressive towns and from the independent-minded commuter suburbs.

Ogonowski, by contrast, is a Dracut lifer – Dracut being a working class town just north of Lowell. And he is a well-known name locally: His brother piloted one of the American Airlines jets that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was a better cultural fit in the Lowell area than Tsongas. If there was an issue that boosted him in these towns, it was illegal immigration, which he talked up relentlessly.

Fittingly, the final days of the campaign brought a controversy, with former Congressman Atkins – a Tsongas backer – declaring that Ogonowski’s immigrant-bashing smacked of racism and would have disappointed Ogonowski’s late brother, who shared Atkins embrace of Cambodian refugees back in the early 1990s. The resulting furor surely reinforced to Lowell area voters which candidate was more “like” them.

In 1992, the issue of Cambodian refugees drove a cultural wedge between Chet Atkins and the otherwise Democratic-leaning voters around Lowell, nearly handing the seat to an obscure Republican. This year, an obscure Republican leaned on illegal immigration to reinforce similar cultural tension between those same voters and Niki Tsongas. Once again, it nearly worked.