PITTSFIELD -- Don’t look now, but there are no challengers on the ballot for any of the 2014 state legislative races in Berkshire County.
Whether it’s a fluke or a trend, the 2012 election cycle produced only one race for the four House seats and one Senate seat comprising the Berkshire delegation, and this year that figure has fallen to zero. The deadline for filing nomination papers for the races passed last month.
"I don’t recall a time when the entire delegation was unopposed," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who faced the only opposition countywide in the 2012 election -- from a member of the Green/Rainbow Party.
In that race, he took 82 percent of the vote.
For the Republican Party, the ballot this year is another sign of the "very difficult challenges" the GOP faces in Massachusetts, especially in the Berkshires, county party Chairman James Bronson of Pittsfield said.
The 2014 election marks the second consecutive cycle without a Republican contesting for a House or Senate seat locally.
With only 10 to 12 percent of voters registered as Republicans, Bronson said any candidate considering a run starts with a disadvantage in terms of enrollment and demographics. He compared the situation to a Democrat trying to run in a number of states in the South.
A healthy percentage of the newest county residents also hail from the New York City area and tend to be liberal, Bronson said, and there are strong union organizations, which he said favor Democrats.
There are Republicans in the county eager to run for legislative office to effect change, he said, but "we have encouraged them to run only when they are really ready."
That includes having the time and funding to run a strong race, Bronson said. Sometimes a party member "is really frustrated and fed up with the way things are going, and they want to run," he said, but Bronson and others in the party would advise planning and organizing well ahead, "not jumping into the race six months ahead of the election."
That, he said, is more likely the route a Democrat could take because of the strong party structure here and statewide.
"I hope in two years we will have some great candidates ready to run," he said.
It isn’t that House and Senate incumbents were always challenged in the past, as an analysis of election results in the Berkshires since 1970 shows. But the number of contested general and election primary races has generally fallen over the past two decades.
"I think it is probably a combination of things," said Pittsfield City Clerk Linda Tyer.
She said there seems to be apathy among many voters, some of whom have come to believe "the system is rigged" and that they won’t be able to effect change.
Some potential candidates shy away because of the increased scrutiny and harsh criticism candidates at every level are receiving in the Internet age, Tyer said, adding, "It really has a chilling effect on people who might step forward."
And another factor, the clerk said, is that many voters are satisfied with the elected officials they now have. "We usually see multiple candidates only when there is a [legislative] vacancy," she said.
That trend repeated itself often in Berkshire races since 1970 for the House seats and the Senate. When an incumbent retired or stepped down, as many as four or five candidates would typically run in the party primaries and there were at least two candidates in the November election.
In subsequent elections, however, if a candidate won a second or third time, they often ran unopposed in either the primary or general election or both.
The decline in Republican opposition is noticeable, especially over the past decade, even in the Berkshire Senate race where Republicans once dominated, and in the House seat held from 1990 to 2004 by Rep. Shaun P. Kelly, R-Dalton.
Today, it is a clean sweep for the Democrats, with Rep. Gailanne M. Cariddi of North Adams in the 1st Berkshire District, Paul W. Mark of Peru in the 2nd District, Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield in the 3rd District, and Pignatelli in the 4th District.
Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, of Pittsfield, represents a district encompassing Berkshire County and communities in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
Farley-Bouvier said she also sees a combination of possible reasons for the lack of competition. "But I think one way to look at it is that the voters are satisfied with their representatives," she said. "I am not hearing a lot from voters who are not satisfied, and I feel good about that."
Having no challenger also allows her to work harder for her constituents as important legislation is moving toward action in the House, Farley-Bouvier said. "I would be in heavy campaign mode right now," she said, "and I would have to raise money."
For the Berkshire delegation, the non-races might be considered "an endorsement for having done a good job," she said.
"I never take anything for granted in politics," said Pignatelli, who is completing his sixth term. "People will still see a lot of me and I will work hard and spend some money."
Despite the decline in legislative races of late, Pignatelli said he sees encouragement in a number of hotly contested select board races in the county this spring. "I think there are people engaged in these races," he said.
Other incumbents could not be reached for comment for this article.
To reach Jim Therrien:
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