Congressional candidate John Chapman bristles at the suggestion that the most exciting electoral race in Massachusetts is somehow unexplainable, unexpected, surprising and not “exactly clear.” Rather, to him, it is fundamentally explainable, expected, unsurprising and crystal clear. After all, Chapman, from often foggy Chatham, is only attempting to be the first Republican elected to Congress in the commonwealth since Peter Torkildsen and Peter Blute both won seats in 1994. That campaign—also a mid-term, like 2014—was a national referendum on presidential imperialism and unpopularity.
A Chapman triumph would be redundant evidence in refuting Tip O’Neill’s long held axiom: All politics is local. Except every breaking wave election, which 2014 may just prove to be (interestingly, a second Republican, Richard Tisei, is also competitive in a Massachusetts congressional race). Chapman hopes history will repeat itself and that this year will mirror 1994.
A lawyer, moderate and mollifying, Chapman is aiming to synthesize his executive experience in fields as diverse as labor, healthcare and finance.
Sitting down with him after an event on a brisk autumn Sunday on Cape Cod recently, he explained quite simply why he is seriously challenging a two-term incumbent Democrat, William Keating. “The people here are starved for representation,” he said. His opponent is “invisible and ineffective.” Chapman—who cannot remember the last time he had a day off since announcing his candidacy last January—recalled meeting a number of residents in the 9th District who did not know who their Congressman was or that they had a choice in this election.
Chapman is a political start-up in a district that perennially is a permutable start-over. The 9th is a creation (in 2012) of the redistricting of the 10th, which was a creation of the redistricting of the 12th, which had roots from the former 4th and 14th districts… as population fled the state.
In Massachusetts, the political hip bone is tightly connected to the thigh bone in the Democrat skeleton. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans 3-1; the entire Congressional delegation is of a single party. The last Republican to occupy a seat in this district, and its legacy districts, was Margaret Heckler, who left office in January 1983. Chapman seems unfazed by any perceived structural disadvantage. As do voters.
An unknown and novice to electoral politics, his campaign—which began principally in direct reaction to the Affordable Care Act—received attention, and ultimately national recognition, earlier this month when an Emerson College/WGBH New Poll showed Chapman with a five-point (45 percent to 40 percent) lead over Keating. A seat once considered nearly uncontestable, suddenly seems in jeopardy.
Emerging from the poll’s results are indicators that should alarm Keating. President Obama has only a 37 percent favorable rating and 58 percent unfavorable rating in the 9th District. Chapman is tied with Keating (39 percent) among females. He is less well known but more well liked than Keating. And of supreme consequence, Chapman holds a solid lead (54 percent to Keating’s 28 percent) among unaffiliated voters.
He may also be the beneficiary of a rare phenomenon in Massachusetts politics: A strong top-of-the-ballot Republican (Charlie Baker) may draw votes for down-ballot Republicans. With no Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama on the ticket, disgruntled Democrats are left with Martha Coakley, proving to be uninspiring to unenthusiastic supporters.
This election is also notable for what is conspicuously absent: the potency of progressivism (and, for that matter, the Tea Party). Everywhere in Massachusetts progressives believe in—expect, even--diversity of everything, except political thought and political party. But this election seems more about issues than identity. And issues appear to be propelling Chapman and retarding Keating as Election Day approaches.
The Emerson/WBGH poll showed that those who believe that taxes and jobs are the critical issues prefer Baker while those who prioritize education and healthcare prefer Coakley. Chapman lists jobs and spending (related to taxes) as those issues most in need of addressing but also senses that the Ebola and ISIS concerns tie into immigration. The latter, immigration, is a new third-rail for Democrats in the Commonwealth; it speaks directly to competency of government in general and the unpopularity of Obama (and Patrick) in particular. Which, in turn, feed into national moodiness and uneasiness.
According to the poll, Chapman shows his greatest support to be, unsurprisingly, in Barnstable County. The region’s largest paper, The Cape Cod Times—which recently endorsed two moderate Republicans for the state legislature—actually endorsed Keating, citing the role of small businesses and healthcare. Those issues, however, favor the Republican.
Chapman retold a story that will undoubtedly resonate with the 1,200 National Federation of Independent Business members in the district: Owners of a bakery on the Cape could not hire an additional employee precisely because their healthcare costs rose threefold.
For Chapman, judicious journeyman, that very clear revelation may be looking into the crystal ball of victory.
James P. Freeman is a former Cape Cod Times columnist