AMESBURY — While Greater Newburyport makes up only a quarter of the registered voters in the First Essex Senatorial District, don't be too quick to rule out a victory by a local candidate.
It can be done.
Just ask Nicholas Costello.
In 1983, he managed to pull off something that is an oddity in the Merrimack Valley — Costello, the candidate from the little town of Amesbury, had an upset win. The seat almost always goes to a candidate from Haverhill or Methuen, where the bulk of the district's voters live.
"You just got to work hard. You got to meet the people and let them know you know something about their area. It takes a lot of work," Costello said, recounting his win 29 years ago in a special election.
Observers say some of the dynamics that helped propel Costello to office may fall into place again this year, as the field of candidates from across the district grows. If several candidates emerge from Haverhill and Methuen, the chances increase that a candidate from Amesbury, Salisbury or Newburyport can win.
Today is Steven Baddour's last day as senator after a decade representing the district. A week ago, the Methuen Democrat announced he was resigning in the middle of his sixth, two-year term to take a job with an international law firm, McDermott, Will & Emery.
Three people have taken out nomination papers to run for the seat, which represents Newburyport, Amesbury, Salisbury, Merrimac, Haverhill, Methuen and part of North Andover.
Costello, who served four terms in the Senate, said he went through a lot of shoe leather in his race. But there was more to it than good old-fashioned campaigning. According to those who helped him to victory, the math worked in his favor.
Usually, if a single Methuen or Haverhill candidate with good name recognition runs, that person will win the seat. Methuen has about twice the population of Newburyport, and Haverhill has more than triple the population.
But in 1983, there were several Haverhill and Methuen candidates packing the Democratic primary ballot, splitting each other's support base. Costello, who was the state representative at the time, put up a strong showing in Greater Newburyport. He also had a respectable turnout north on Interstate 495 to seal his victory in the primary.
They all vied for the seat left open when Methuen Democrat Sharon Pollard left to become secretary of energy for Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Ted Van Nahl, who helped Costello in the 1983 race, remembers the packed ballot working in Costello's favor.
"That provided an opportunity for someone at this end of the district who was also known and popular in the Valley in general to have a chance to prevail," Van Nahl said.
State Rep. Michael Costello, a Democrat from Newburyport and Nicholas' son, recalled that the Haverhill and Methuen candidates were council members with their own local constituencies.
"For my father, when we ran that race, we spent a lot of time firming up the base in Amesbury, Newburyport and Salisbury," Michael Costello said.
Afterward, they targeted Haverhill and then moved to Methuen. Costello also earned the endorsements of his colleagues in the House in Haverhill and Methuen.
In the primary, Nicholas Costello swept his district. The other candidates split the vote in their own communities, and Costello won.
Costello later faced Republican and former Newburyport Mayor Byron Matthews.
"It was a tough race," Michael Costello said. "Every (election) year after that, someone from Methuen or Haverhill was challenging him, and it was always a tough fight because we came from a small part of the district."
In 1990, James Jajuga of Methuen was able to defeat Costello in the primary.
Van Nahl sees similarities to the race that Costello first ran, as more and more Haverhill and Methuen politicians jump into the race.
"It appears there are going to be several people from Methuen interested in running and, certainly, it wouldn't be a big surprise if the mayor of Haverhill (James Fiorentini ) decides to run," Van Nahl added.
Van Nahl worked as Fiorentini's chief of staff before retiring.
So far, only three candidates have taken out papers to run for Baddour's seat: Amesbury City Councilor Jim Kelcourse, unenrolled; Haverhill School Committee member Shaun Toohey, a Republican; and Democrat Sean Fountain, a member of the Methuen City Council.
But there are even more considering a run for the plum Senate seat, including Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer and Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday.
One factor that may limit the field of candidates is the amount of money that candidates will need to raise.
Van Nahl and Michael Costello said candidates will need to raise between $100,000 to $150,000 for the campaign.
Michael Costello said in his last election, he spent $40,000 on a districtwide mailing alone. The money went to pay the graphic designer, the printer and the post office.
"When you get into this race, it's not for the faint of heart," Michael Costello said. "For everyone that does, I give them credit."
Former State Senators
Philip K. AllenAndover 1947-1949
John CoddaireHaverhill 1949-1953
Sharon Pollard Methuen1977-1983
Nicholas Costello Amesbury1983-1991
Voters by Community
*Only a portion of the town is included in the district