“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states,” Barack Obama said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election four years later, he turned some traditionally red states blue. A little over a year into his presidency, he is turning them red again.
No matter how you slice and dice it, this is proving true at the local level as well. Cape Cod has historically been a rare Republican enclave in Massachusetts. Even John F. Kennedy won only Provincetown. Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to sweep the Cape. But in this year’s special election for U.S. Senate, Republican Scott Brown painted those towns (save Provincetown) red again.
That may not be where it ends. Last week, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) announced he was retiring rather than running for re-election this fall — maybe due to his handling of a 1986 case involving University of Alabama-Huntsville shooter Amy Bishop, maybe not. In any event, this is Massachusetts’ most conservative congressional district. Scott Brown carried it January with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Democrats are likely to point out that Delahunt never broke a sweat running for re-election. His toughest race was his first in 1996, when he ran against former state House Republican Leader Ed Teague. Delahunt beat Teague 54 percent to 42 percent. After that, he never received less than 64 percent of the vote. But other than Teague, he never faced a serious opponent. Nor had he ever run in a hostile political climate.
After his initial election, Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan of Lowell never got less than 69 percent of the vote. But when he resigned in 2007, Democrat Niki Tsongas barely held the seat in the ensuing special election, taking 51 percent to Republican Jim Ogonowski’s 45 percent. That was back when independents were less angry at the commonwealth’s Democratic leadership than today. And that election took place in a somewhat more Democratic district.
Delahunt’s tenth district contains what political analyst Robert David Sullivan dubbed “Cranberry Country” — the Republican-leaning areas of the Cape and South Shore — in his landmark study of the Massachusetts electorate. This region gave 54 percent of the vote to Bill Weld in 1990, 59 percent to Paul Cellucci in 1998, and 60 percent to Mitt Romney in 2002. (The 1994 and 2006 gubernatorial elections were not competitive.) This November, there will be another gubernatorial election and the Democratic incumbent is unpopular.
Republicans already have two strong candidates running for the seat. Former state Treasurer Joe Malone told the Boston Herald he will enter the race on March 21. State Rep. Jeff Perry of Sandwich has perhaps the most formidable political operation on the Cape — he was re-elected with 60 percent even in the Obama year of 2008 — and has tossed his hat into the ring.
Malone was successful statewide in the 1990s but he won his last election in 1994. He lost the Republican gubernatorial nomination four years later for two major reasons: Weld’s 1997 resignation made Cellucci the incumbent; Malone was thus forced to run a negative, ideological campaign that was at odds with the nice-guy image that had made him so popular. Since then, Malone’s successes in the treasurer’s office have been obscured by a $9 million embezzlement scandal involving one of his underlings.
Perry may not have these problems. But he’s also never run a race this big or raised the kind of money it will take to win a congressional seat. The Democrats may have a lot going against them in this race, but this is still Massachusetts. The Democratic bench is deep — state Sen. Robert O’Leary, Norfolk District Attorney William Keating and wealthy businessman Philip Edmundson — and nobody is likely to run as poor a campaign as Martha Coakley. No part of the tenth district has been represented by a Republican since Margaret Heckler lost a re-election bid in 1982; the district proper hasn’t had GOP representation since Hastings Keith retired a decade before that.
But Massachusetts’ independent majority seems to have tired of one-party rule on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill. The climate resembles the early 1990s, when Republicans won the governorship, lieutenant governorship, state treasurer’s office, and two congressional seats. Had the Democrats not dispatched liberal Rep. Chester Atkins in a primary, Republicans may well have picked up a third congressional seat.
If independents remain disenchanted with Obama, Gov. Deval Patrick, and the Democrats into November, a congressional district in one of the country’s bluest states could very well turn red. Or Brown.