Skip to content




You could be forgiven for losing count of the candidates running to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas in the 3rd Congressional District.

Since Tsongas announced in mid-August that she would not seek another term in 2018, it has seemed as if a new Democrat has declared candidacy every other week — and with a field that now stands at 13, a new face has, on average, entered the arena every 11 days.

Experts say it is unlikely that all 13 candidates will make it to September’s primary, but even so, a field of this size is highly unusual.

“I see it as a huge outlier from what we would expect a Democratic primary in a seemingly safe Democratic state should be,” said John Cluverius, a professor of political science at UMass Lowell. “Thirteen current candidates is probably unprecedented in the country right now.”

Official records on candidates running are unclear, but the most crowded federal election in modern Massachusetts history was the 1976 Democratic primary for the 7th Congressional District, when a young Ed Markey defeated 11 other candidates by securing only 21.6 percent of the vote.

The specific factors driving such high participation in the 3rd District race are unclear. Democrats could be more motivated to run because of the political climate, and the seat opening up after Tsongas held it for a decade could spark greater interest.

But the size of the field, Cluverius said, is also evidence that typical obstacles new candidates face simply have not been effective. Despite some candidates claiming the title, there is no single person who obviously represents Lowell, the district’s largest city. The race so far has not broken along insurgent-establishment Democratic party lines in the way that many other primaries, including the 2016 presidential primary, did.

Dan Koh turned heads when, in September alone, he raised a stunning $800,000 toward the campaign, a full half-million dollars more than the only other Democrat who raised money by the first financial report deadline. Political observers and commenters, including some in these pages, saw that as a warning shot that would seem insurmountable to potential challengers.

That was not true: 10 more Democrats joined the race after hearing after reports on Koh’s early fundraising first came out.

“All of the forces you’d expect that would narrow the field are not working are not functioning,” Cluverius said. “That leaves the race open for a lot of candidates to actually have a decent chance.”

As a result, the next nine months of campaigning will be more volatile than typical election cycles.

Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry said in an interview earlier this month — when only 12 Democrats were in the race — that he expects candidates to face a much more challenging battle for attention.

“It’s very hard for the press to cover 12 candidates,” Berry said. “It’s hard to get the community to hold forums when you have 12 candidates. How many times does each get to speak? Twice? It becomes a bit chaotic, and I think some civic organizations may wait until the crowd thins or the herd thins.”

Despite the current status, the field will likely be whittled down going forward. Campaigning through September just to secure the primary nomination is a draining, costly endeavor, and there are several de facto exit points candidates can take.

The next Federal Election Commission financial reports are due at the end of January, so perhaps those who find themselves drastically behind on money compared to front-runners will no longer see their chances as realistic.

Candidates do not yet have position on the ballot secured. To do so, each will need to collect signatures from 2,000 registered 3rd District voters. Those forms are typically released in February, and must be submitted for verification by May.

“There may be some campaigns that through lack of funds or lack of organization are unable to do that,” Cluverius said. “But it’s not an insurmountable challenge for most well-organized campaigns.”

Once the race is finally narrowed down and a single winner emerges from the primary, the large field of Democrats may have residual effects.

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist and commentator, said the nominee will face more work to coalesce support from a large field than from a smaller field. With only six week or so between the primary and the general election — far less than most other states — there is not much time to do so.

Historically, the president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during midterms. Factor in President Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity, and Democrats are likely to be energized for their party’s nominee. But if “hurt feelings” take over, Marsh said, supporters of unsuccessful 3rd District candidates may not carry their support forward to the nominee.

“Whoever the nominee is has to very quickly get most of the supporters from the rest of the candidates to turn around, support you, get them organized and make them vote for you in the general election,” Marsh said in an interview earlier this month.

If all of this sounds overwhelming, remember there’s at least a contrast across the aisle: only one Republican remains in the race.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.

Join the Conversation

We invite you to use our commenting platform to engage in insightful conversations about issues in our community. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable to us, and to disclose any information necessary to satisfy the law, regulation, or government request. We might permanently block any user who abuses these conditions.