While Republicans are reeling in former strongholds like Virginia and New Hampshire, the Grand Old Party hopes for a pickup in the bluest of states: Massachusetts, the home of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis.
Their target is the Oct. 16 special election for the House seat vacated by former Rep. Martin Meehan in Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District. The GOP’s reason for optimism? The Hill reports “A new poll suggests a Republican congressman from Massachusetts is a real possibility.”
That poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, shows Republican nominee Jim Ogonowski within ten points of Democratic candidate Niki Tsongas, the widow of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, trailing her just 51 percent to 41 percent. Ogonowski leads 46 percent to 39 percent among independents and grabs 17 percent of Democrats. Mrs. Tsongas wins 11 percent of Republicans.
An Ogonowski spokesman described the poll result as “huge.” Reason’s David Weigel noted that a Republican victory, while unlikely, would “change the terms of the political debate.” Massachusetts GOP Chairman Peter Torkildsen, one of the last Republicans to have represented the commonwealth in Congress, says that the party is energized.
Until recently, “demoralized” would have been a better term to describe Bay State Republicans. The beleaguered party holds just 10 percent of the seats in the legislature. The congressional delegation is all-Democratic. Republicans basically punted the last three Senate races, twice recruiting sacrificial lambs to run against Kennedy and letting Kerry — whose GOP opponents have always broken 40 percent — run unopposed in 2002. In January, the Republicans’ 16-year hold on the governorship came to an end, leaving them without a single statewide elected office.
For nearly two decades, state party activists longed to see the talented Massachusetts residents appointed to positions by Republican presidents and governors run for statewide elective office under the GOP banner. None of them took the plunge. In fact, two of the most prominent examples — business leaders Wayne Budd and Gloria Larson, a U.S. attorney under George H.W. Bush and economic secretary to Gov. William Weld, respectively — endorsed Democrat Deval Patrick for governor in 2006.
Massachusetts has no Republican congressional districts, but the Fifth is one of its least Democratic. A majority of its voters belong to neither party. It contains Democratic cities like Lowell and Lawrence, along with smaller rural and affluent towns that lean Republican. Competitive statewide Republicans tend to do well there — Mitt Romney carried it solidly in 2002. It was George W. Bush’s best district in Massachusetts during the 2004 election, though that isn’t saying much.
Historically, the Fifth sent Republicans to Congress from 1895 until Paul Tsongas went to Washington in 1975. In 1972, the district even rebuffed John Kerry’s maiden run for Congress just as George McGovern was taking the commonwealth’s electoral votes. Republicans came close to unseating the district’s too-liberal Congressman Chester Atkins in 1990, and might have done so in 1992 if the Democrats hadn’t beaten them to the punch in the primary, opting for the then-centrist Marty Meehan instead.
Ogonowski has proven a spirited candidate. An Air Force lieutenant colonel whose brother was murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he has tried to position himself prudently on the subject of Iraq. Like Mitt Romney, he is critical of the war’s execution and emphasizes the eventual drawdown of troops rather than the surge — he even says his opponent is the candidate who would keep us in Iraq indefinitely. But Ogonowski also complains that Niki Tsongas’s proposed withdrawal timetable would not leave enough forces in place to stabilize the region, likening it to “sending [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady on the field alone to take on the entire Colts defense.”
Some Republicans might not like Ogonowski’s proposal to enlist Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter (along with former President Bush) to diplomatically engage other countries in the Middle East and enlarge the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Yet it might play among disaffected Democrats and independents.
The elements for a Republican upset — an open seat, a somewhat divided Democratic Party after a contentious primary, a large number of independents, a slightly higher level of GOP registration than most Bay State districts, and no presidential or gubernatorial coattails for Tsongas to grab — may be there, but there are good reasons to be skeptical.
Massachusetts independents lean disproportionately Republican (a fair number of them probably are Republicans who don’t see the point of registering as such in a one-party Democratic state). Although the Democrats won the governorship by 21 points last November, their margin among independents was just four. It isn’t surprising to see unaffiliated Fifth District voters leaning toward Ogonowski, and he will need to carry them by a far bigger margin than he is in the SurveyUSA poll.
Perhaps more importantly, it is better to be named Tsongas in this district than to be identified with Bush. The unions and other interest groups will pull out all the stops to link Ogonowski to an unpopular president and, despite the Republican’s efforts to the contrary, an equally unpopular war. Can the GOP brand appeal to enough swing voters?
It will be a surprisingly competitive race in a usually uncompetitive part of the country. But remember that the last politician to place his hopes in a Massachusetts miracle came away disappointed.
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