Democrats in midterm trouble? Scenes from a Massachusetts driveway.

When Democrats go door-to-door in liberal Massachusetts, you know they're feeling the heat.

v19/ZUMA Press/Newscom
After Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat this January, Democrats in Massachusetts are facing renewed political competition.

When referring to their prospects in this fall’s midterm elections, reporters often say that Democrats “have a big hill to climb.”

In my neighborhood, that applies literally.

My shared driveway is steep – cover it with snow and you’d have a triple black-diamond ski trail at Vail. It’s intimidating enough to keep away most door-to-door solicitors.

But not the Democratic volunteer who visited my house Sunday. Huffing and puffing, but still smiling, she greeted me with a “How ya’ doin’ today?” and promptly passed out pamphlets supporting the reelections of state Senator Jamie Eldridge and US Rep. Jim McGovern.

In Massachusetts, Democratic politicians usually just need to spell their names correctly to win big at the ballot. Congressman McGovern, in office since 1997, won his last contest with 98 percent of the vote. And state Senator Eldridge cruised to victory in his first Senate battle in 2008.

Real competition

Yet both candidates now feel threatened enough to make a scrappy volunteer hike up my driveway. Mr. McGovern, who in years past often ran virtually unopposed, now faces one of five Republicans (the primary is today) and an independent. Mr. Eldridge faces a Republican who hails from my hometown.

You can call this healthy political competition here the Scott Brown effect.

Back in January, Mr. Brown shocked America by defeating the favored Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, winning 52 percent of the vote in the special Senate election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. Senator Brown proved that a plucky Republican could win in a state where only 11 percent of voters are registered Republicans.

What Brown understood, and what state Democrats now apparently get, is that for all the state's liberal bona fides, Massachusetts voters have a strong independent streak. Indeed, 51 percent of them aren’t affiliated with either party.

Appeals to that independence were emblazoned on the pamphlets I got Sunday.

Eldridge is an “independent leader we can count on.” He’s “[F]ighting for our priorities. Standing up to special interests. Delivering for our communities.”

And McGovern frames his pitch in terms of “life lessons” from the package store his parents ran. McGovern, the pamphlet makes clear, is thoroughly middle class, and “[H]e’ll do whatever it takes to put people back to work.”

Where's health care?

Here are two leading progressive politicians from Massachusetts (McGovern is ranked as one of the most liberal members in Congress), yet neither man’s pamphlet mentions health-care reform, the Democrats’ signature achievement in the past term.

So is it fair to say Democrats are running away from their agenda? Not really. After all, Massachusetts passed far-reaching health-care legislation (including an individual mandate) in 2006, so the national version of such "reform" simply may not resonate here. Still, in a year marked by anti-establishment fervor, Eldridge and McGovern exemplify the incumbent strategy of running as independent populists, highlighting local concerns, and "fighting the good fight."

Will it work? Midterm elections are often decided less on national trends than on the energy of the get-out-the-vote operation. So before Republicans toast their expected election triumph Nov. 2, they may want to hire volunteers as energetic as the Democratic sherpa I met Sunday.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.