Massachusetts: The State That Forgot to Turn Red
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
BOSTON - The "Scott Brown" effect - the surge in Republican voting due in large part to frustration with the new federal health care law - proved itself to be alive and well in last week's national elections. Republicans all over the country rode the health care issue to stunning victories, some of them upsets of the sort that Brown pulled off when he won the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts earlier this year. But there was one place where the Scott Brown effect seemed to have disappeared almost completely. That one place was Massachusetts.
While Republicans swept to control in more than a dozen previously Democratic states - even nearby Maine and New Hampshire - the GOP in Massachusetts won virtually nothing. Democrats reelected Governor Deval Patrick, kept huge majorities in the Legislature, and secured every statewide elective office, including that of Attorney General Martha Coakley , the Democratic attorney general whom Scott Brown had humiliated in January. Last Tuesday was a depressing night for Massachusetts Republicans, one that dashed their hopes that Brown's victory might signal a reversal of fortunes in a state where they have long been a largely irrelevant minority.
Democrats attribute their better-than-expected success in Massachusetts in part to the fact that they were ready this time. Unlike in the Brown-Coakley Senate campaign, they launched an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort in response to a governor's race that had the potential to be very close. They benefited from high turnout rates in Democratic strongholds such as Boston. "When people started really looking at Massachusetts as a state, they realized that we're doing better than most of the rest of the country," says Democratic state Senator Karen Spilka.
But there were other states where Democrats worked hard, benefited from a decent economy, and still got clobbered in November. What Republicans are coming to realize is that Scott Brown was more of an outlier than they hoped he would be. His win was the result of a complicated confluence of forces, including an unusual influx of national money and attention that came from the historic significance of the Kennedy seat and the absence of any other major election going on anywhere in the country at the time.
"In order for a Republican to win in Massachusetts in any office, everything has to go just about perfectly," says Jim McKenna, who lost to Martha Coakley in her re-election bid for attorney general by a wide margin.
In January, it went perfectly, even down to the level of Coakley identifying a Red Sox pitcher with the Yankees in a radio interview gaffe . In November, nothing went quite right for the Republicans. McKenna, in contrast to Scott Brown, couldn't afford any broadcast advertising and earned the party's nomination late in the game through a write-in campaign. Some Republicans in the state view the attorney general slot and others as missed opportunities for a party that only rarely sees major opportunities come along. "With no resources, McKenna ended up actually carrying a number of communities across the state," says state Senate Minority Whip Robert Hedlund. "I would have thought Coakley would have been vulnerable … In my adult life you can look to how the Republican Party has excelled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."
The depressing statewide results have left Republicans in Massachusetts engaging in a fair amount of self-reflection about the future of their party at the state level. "Statewide, everyone was pretty dejected," says Jim Lang, a Republican who volunteered in a number of other state races. "But the feeling is that we're ready to reconstruct now. We have an organization now that kind of didn't exist before Scott Brown."
"It wasn't a blowout," Hedlund protests, "in the sense that we had some great constitutional candidates who came pretty close. It's like a baseball team in the World Series. Yes, they got swept in four straight games, but all four straight games were close, extra-inning, one-run ball games."
Four of forty
The Republicans in the state Senate suffered one individual but painful defeat. They lost one of their five seats, and are now down to four out of 40. They did considerably better in the House, the one semi-bright spot for them in the state's Nov. 2 returns. They increased their membership from 15 to a likely 32, depending on recounts. Still, they'll be up against a probable 128 Democrats.
And history suggests that GOP gains in the Massachusetts House tend to be short-lived: Since 1990, when Republicans gained six House seats, they have been in a consistent decline that showed signs of ending only last Tuesday. And this isn't because Republicans haven't tried. Under former Republican Governor Mitt Romney's leadership, the state GOP pumped $3 million into legislative races in 2004 and recruited candidates for 130 legislative seats. But they didn't win a single one.
State GOP Chair Jennifer Nassour says the party prioritized House races this year because of the importance of building a future crop of candidates for higher offices. "That was where we really saw our meat and potatoes, at the ground level, because our numbers are so paltry in the House and the Senate that we can't get anything passed," she says.
Even an infusion of 15 to 17 new members will make a significant difference for House Republicans, particularly in terms of process and logistics. For example, there are almost always committee hearings scheduled during floor debates, and in the past Republicans didn't have enough members to cover them all. Now, they'll have the flexibility to allow some members to attend committee hearings when there are scheduling conflicts, enabling those members to have a more meaningful role in their committees.
The Republican Senate caucus's logistical problems just got significantly worse, however. They try to maintain a regular rotation so that there's always a Republican in the room during informal sessions, and even with five members that was tricky. "It's going to be tough just from a scheduling standpoint to make sure that we're able to cover everything that we need to cover, from committee hearings to informal sessions," says Hedlund.
At least 70 House seats would be necessary to have a more significant impact on shaping policy, particularly because that would allow Republicans to block rule suspensions and other procedural maneuvers. As George Peterson, assistant minority leader in the House puts it, "We still don't really have the numbers to affect the day-to-day course of legislation."