Last month marked the beginning of the weeks-long caucusing process for the Massachusetts Democratic Party. It’s an annual occurrence, but this year’s delegate elections bear far greater significance than in presidential and off years. That’s because these caucuses fall on the midterm election cycle, when the Commonwealth holds all of its statewide contests—including, of course, the race for governor.
“This is a real good one this year,” said Jack Colangeli, a Malden delegate who will be heading to his 10th state Democratic convention in June. Colangeli was elected delegate to the convention in February, when the Malden Democratic Committee kicked off caucus season. He continued: “Last year was just platform, this year’s big. I just love this stuff.”
“It’ll really start to pick up with the caucuses,” said Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “From this point forward it’s about building momentum.”
Between February and March, the party will hold more than 400 caucuses, electing a couple thousand delegates and alternate delegates to the convention in Worcester, where they’ll vote to endorse a slew of candidates for office. Bickford said that caucus turnout has risen significantly in 2017 and so far in 2018 (since Trump’s election to the presidency), compared to recent years.
All things considered, the results of the caucuses make little tangible difference in determining the party’s nominee for the governorship. What’s really on the line is a candidate’s ability to garner 15 percent of the delegates’ support; crossing that threshold gets you on the September primary ballot. It would take a miracle to win a primary as a write-in candidate, so, first and foremost, the caucuses are a battle for the ballot.
“I’m not ahead in money,” Democratic candidate Bob Massie said at a recent event. “I’m starting to be ahead in people, but I need to get my 15 percent at the convention. Which means I need as many people who are excited about my candidacy to go forward.”
Starting last year, the caucuses have implemented same-day registration, which is likely to boost turnout and make the elections more inclusive. Previously, attendees had to be registered as Democrats prior to the caucuses to participate.
Ultimately, the prize of winning caucus delegates is a glorified endorsement by Democratic party honchos at the convention. The state caucuses do little more than determine who the party officially backs leading up to the statewide primary. Last time around, in 2014, delegates at the convention endorsed Steven Grossman as the party’s choice, but despite emerging in first place from the caucus scrum, Grossman went on to lose the primary and the nomination to Martha Coakley.
Precedents aside, in a year when challengers are struggling to gain notoriety against a popular incumbent governor, expect the caucuses to take on heightened significance, even if the end result is unlikely to be shocking. At this point, it’s all about building up the face of the opposition to popular Gov. Charlie Baker.
“It’s tough to judge someone when they don’t have opponents,” Bickford said.
Given the quick and chaotic nature of the caucuses, they can be extremely difficult to organize. Some of the campaigns have been reaching out and corralling local support for months leading up to local elections.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Massie campaign manager Mike McGinn. “We’re trying to identify delegates, and then you need to find the people to vote for those delegates [at the caucuses].”
Building excitement within the Commonwealth’s liberal base is essential to winning statewide campaigns, and that’s an opportunity the caucuses provide, as rigorous as they may be.
“When the doors opened for the first caucus, the campaign to beat Charlie Baker began for the Democratic Party in Massachusetts,” said Kevin Franck, deputy campaign director for Setti Warren, another Democratic candidate and the former mayor of Newton.
In Malden, it’s a tired-looking crew congregating early on a weekend morning for the first of many of these local caucuses.
“It’s great to see democracy at the ground level and get away from all the money and fundraising,” said Donna Patalano, a candidate for Middlesex County district attorney.
About 70 caucus-goers fill the local Irish American Club, some picking at the refreshment table as campaign representatives try to recruit potential favorable delegates. The atmosphere is casual, with most participants mum on who they intend to support at the convention.
Asked who he supports for governor, Colangeli said, “I’m not going to tell you that.” But he seems to be interested in Warren.
“I don’t know a lot about [candidate Jay] Gonzalez,” he said. Tapping on a Setti Warren brochure, he continued, “I know more about this kid, I like him. … He’s a vet, he’s got two terms of executive experience.”
While Colangeli likes candidates with experience at the executive level, others are looking for a decidedly progressive horse in this race. Local Dem Vinh Holmquist lamented the party’s nomination of establishment candidates like Coakley in the past.
“It was a mistake,” Holmquist said. In 2014, the Coakley-Kerrigan ticket picked up 57 percent of the Malden vote over four other choices. “And we’ve done it twice.” (Coakley was also the nominee for senate in 2009, when she lost to Scott Brown in a special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.) At this point, Holmquist says she is a Bob Massie supporter.
Otherwise, everyone at the caucus agrees on one thing: The next governor of the Commonwealth needs to be a Democrat.
“Anybody but Baker,” said Ryan Moore, a delegate wearing a Tyson/Nye 2020 T-shirt.
The caucus process peaks on March 3, the last Saturday of caucusing. That day will feature more than 30 caucuses, including a bulk of Boston’s delegate elections.