CONCORD, Mass. — If three's a crowd, what does 11 make?
An open Massachusetts congressional seat has prompted a political free-for-all of sorts, with 10 Democrats and a Republican vying for the affection of voters in Tuesday's primary — putting it among the nation's most crowded House races.
Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas, the widow of former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, is retiring after five terms and hasn't endorsed any potential successor.
The field reflects the ethnic and geographic diversity of the district, which stretches from the working-class mill cities of Lowell and Lawrence in the Merrimack Valley to historic Concord and upscale suburbs west of Boston.
As vacancies in the state's all-Democratic House delegation are rare — the last one came in 2013 after Edward Markey won a special election to the U.S. Senate — the flood of contenders isn't particularly surprising.
"What I think happened is that ten people really squinted hard at this election and said, 'I can take a run at this,' because they didn't see an obvious front-runner emerging and there wasn't a sort of consensus among elites in the party or donors about who that candidate should be," said John Cluverius, a political science professor and associate director of the Center for Public Opinion at University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Making the choice even trickier for primary voters is a relative lack of differences among the candidates on progressive stances including universal health care coverage, immigration protections, women's rights, enhanced gun control and — above all — opposition to President Donald Trump.
Running are Jeff Ballinger, a global workers rights activist; Alexandra Chandler, a former U.S. Naval intelligence officer and the state's first transgender congressional candidate; Beej Das, a constitutional lawyer and hotel developer; Rufus Gifford, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark from 2013-2017; Leonard Golder, a former Stow selectman; Dan Koh, former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; Barbara L'Italien, a state senator from Andover; Bopha Malone, a former bank executive; Juana Matias, a state representative from Lawrence; and Lori Trahan, who served as chief of staff to former Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan.
Rick Green, a business owner and founder of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, is the sole Republican primary candidate. Mike Mullen, an independent, will also be on the November ballot.
The crowded field rivals that of a hectic race just across the border in New Hampshire, where 11 Democrats and six Republicans are on the primary ballot for the seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Like Tsongas, she's not seeking re-election.
Several candidates in the Massachusetts district that has a large immigrant population are stressing their own immigrant backgrounds: Matias, seeking to become the state's first Hispanic in Congress, came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at age 5 and began her career helping unaccompanied children through immigration proceedings; Malone spent part of her childhood in refugee camps after her family escaped Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge; Koh is a descendant of both Korean and Lebanese immigrants; and Das, who says his parents left India in the 1960s for a better life in America.
It's a key issue for voters such as Lydia Gregoret, 54, of Concord, whose own parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine after World War II. An independent planning to vote in the Democratic primary, Gregoret leans toward the 33-year-old Koh because of what she calls his "authentic" stance on immigration and his age.
"I'd like to see a younger person who has these views in Congress," she said.
Organization will be critical in a race that could easily be won with less than 20 percent of the vote, and where turnout is expected to be modest on the day after Labor Day, said Cluverius.
A recent UMass-Lowell/Boston Globe poll showed nearly one in three likely Democratic voters undecided. Koh — who has outraised his opponents — had a slight edge, followed by Gifford, L'Italien and Trahan.
Despite the large field the campaign has been mostly genteel, with exceptions. L'Italien garnered national attention last month by seizing on a Fox News guest booking mix-up to sound off on the network against the separation of immigrant families at the border. Critics accused her campaign of using deception to get on air.
Appearing on Boston Herald Radio this week, L'Italien suggested that Koh, while working for Boston's mayor, failed to help a woman who said she was sexually harassed by another administration official. Koh's campaign vehemently denied the claim.
Sorting through the large field of contenders is clearly a challenge for voters including Kyle Coulter, 27, of Acton.
"You cut through the noise by investigating each campaign," said Coulter, who settled on Chandler because he was most impressed with her experience.
Republicans hold out a glimmer of hope of flipping the seat in November, as the district has gone GOP in some recent statewide elections.
In 2014, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker carried the district over his Democratic opponent. And in 2012, then-U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, carried the district against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, though she won the election.