SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Democrat Jake Auchincloss had opened up a small lead over rival Jesse Mermell by late Wednesday morning in the race to replace Congressman Joe Kennedy, with a coveted U.S. House seat hanging in the balance.
As of 11 a.m., unofficial results compiled by The Associated Press showed Auchincloss 1,152 votes ahead of Mermell in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, which stretches from northern Fall River through the Attleboros and Taunton up to the Boston suburbs. Auchincloss had 22.3% of the vote and Mermell had 21.5%.
All seven Democrats seeking the nomination hail from wealthy Brookline and Newton, at the northern edge of the 4th District. Despite Mermell defeating Auchincloss on his home turf in Newton and running up the score in her own hometown of Brookline, it appeared Auchincloss’s decision to prioritize the southern part of the district as a sort of adopted home base had paid real dividends.
With 208 of 220 precincts having reported results by late Wednesday morning, Mermell was facing an increasingly difficult battle to make up the gap separating her from Auchincloss. Her campaign sent a letter to city and town clerks in the 4th District’s 34 communities on Wednesday asking them for more information about the number of outstanding ballots.
Later in the day, Secretary of State William Galvin sought and received a judge’s permission to let municipalities to continue counting primary ballots. “Existing state laws lack procedures for the counting of state primary ballots after Election Day,” his office explained in a statement.
Galvin’s office indicated roughly 1,400 to 1,500 ballots remained to be counted, though Mermell’s campaign suggested there could be more. The rest of the ballots are slated to be counted Thursday. Depending on the margin of victory, it’s possible the race will go to a recount.
Both Democrats took a cautious approach to the situation in the overnight hours, issuing similar statements after midnight that urged patience and encouraged officials to ensure every vote gets counted as they manage an unprecedented pandemic-era election conducted primarily by mail.
“We always knew this race was going to be close and tonight’s early results make the race too close to call,” Mermell said. “The most important thing to do now is to count all the votes. We have preliminary figures from city and town clerks but we don’t know for sure whether those are all the votes.”
Auchincloss said, “While the results of our primary are being calculated, I encourage all voters and candidates to allow the process to comprehensively and lawfully unfold. While we always expected a competitive race, we are confident that our full-district campaign will be victorious when the results are announced.”
Kennedy’s ill-fated decision to give up his House seat and challenge U.S. Sen. Ed Markey opened up the 4th District seat for the first time since 2012, when Barney Frank retired and Kennedy won the seat. More than a dozen Democrats considered running, but in the end no one from the southern half of the district jumped in, leaving a broad swath of the region up for grabs.
In the shadow of the Markey-Kennedy race, the candidates were already struggling for attention when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, upending their campaign strategies and forcing them to rely heavily on paid and earned media rather than in-person politicking. The months to come brought limited news coverage, no televised debates and few public polls.
The primary also became enormously expensive, with the candidates having spent a combined $4.7 million as of Aug. 12, and outside groups shelling out another $2.2 million, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by ProPublica.
If Auchincloss pulls off a victory, the 32-year-old Newton city councilor and U.S. Marine Corps veteran will have withstood an onslaught of negative advertising funded by a group affiliated with Emily’s List, which seeks to elect women Democrats. The ads highlighted his time as a registered Republican working to elect GOP Gov. Charlie Baker as well as various comments he’d made on social media over the years.
Auchincloss had his own strengths, though, not least his status as an Afghanistan veteran and his focus on Bristol County. He secured endorsements from not only Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan but also New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, whose city isn’t even in the 4th District. And he had major financial firepower behind him thanks to a super PAC funded in part by his family.
Mermell, for her part, capitalized on her deep connections in Democratic politics and her skills as a communicator, but struggled to keep pace with the amount of cash her wealthy rivals could pour into the race.
She was also hampered by the split field; in Taunton, for example, she fell to sixth place. Five candidates were each getting at least 10% of the vote in the 4th District as of 1:30 a.m. — Mermell; Auchincloss; Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman, who had 18% and won Attleboro; epidemiologist Dr. Natalia Linos, a late entrant who had nearly 12%; and former Federal Reserve regular Ihssane Leckey, a wealthy left-wing candidate who had 11%.
Despite late calls from some progressives to block Auchincloss by consolidating behind Mermell, only two candidates — Dave Cavell and Chris Zannetos — did so, and their decisions came after they’d already banked well over 5,000 votes on mail ballots. And while Emily’s List spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Auchincloss and another well-funded male candidate, Alan Khazei, the group never picked a favorite among the women running.
The Democratic nominee will face former Attleboro City Councilor Julie Hall, who defeated David Rosa in the 4th District Republican primary, on the November ballot. National analysts rate the seat as strongly Democratic-leaning.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.