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Bay State Revolt

Can Scott Brown follow in the populist conservative footsteps of Massachusetts' Republican class of 1990?

By 1.19.10

BOSTON -- It doesn't take much to see that state Sen. Scott Brown isn't your usual Republican sacrificial lamb in the race to fill the remainder of the late Edward M. Kennedy's U.S. Senate term. Driving through the cozy bedroom communities outside Boston, Brown for Senate signs are everywhere. On television, his campaign commercials take up as much airspace as those of his Democratic rival, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

But for Brown -- who began this contest 30 points behind Coakley -- to score what would be a stunning upset, he needs to join a low-key conservative populism to burgeoning anti-incumbent sentiment. Brown needs to spark a taxpayer revolt in the heart of Taxachusetts against the liberal elites and their one-party rule.

It has happened before. The most recent example was 1990. William F. Weld, a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan Justice Department, wasn't even supposed to be the Republican nominee. He failed to win the state party's convention endorsement. He ended up the governor of a state fed up with Michael Dukakis and a Beacon Hill establishment driving the commonwealth into bankruptcy.

Weld was joined by his lieutenant governor Paul Cellucci, a Republican state legislator from Hudson. Republican Joe Malone won the state treasurer's office, carrying even the cities of Boston and Worcester. Republicans gained seats in both houses of the legislature, commanding sufficient numbers in the senate -- 16 -- to sustain Weld's vetoes.

Bill Weld is often thought of as a liberal Republican, and from a conservative perspective many of his positions -- particularly on social issues -- left much to be desired. He also benefited from his Democratic opponent's relative social conservatism. But he, Cellucci, and Malone were very different kinds of Republicans than Elliot Richardson, Frank Sargeant, Leverett Saltonstall or Edward Brooke. Weld ran as a strong fiscal conservative and "filthy supply-sider" opposed to Beacon Hill's tax increases and unbalanced budgets.

On crime, Weld promised to reintroduce prison inmates to the "joys of breaking rocks" and to reinstate the death penalty. This was a telling contrast with his predecessor, who had supported weekend furloughs for convicted murderers and who wouldn't even pledge to execute a hypothetical murder-rapist who went after Massachusetts' first lady.

When it came to the state budget, Weld could sound practically libertarian: "You assume no program is bureaucrat's job is line item in the budget is necessary." He promised to privatize state services, cut spending, and fire lazy bureaucrats loafing on the taxpayer dime. In his 1991 inaugural address, Weld proclaimed, "Last fall the people of Massachusetts voted to disenthrall themselves from the failed dogmas of big government."

Instead of furloughing prisoners, Weld furloughed state workers. Instead of raising taxes, he cut them. Instead of letting the state's bond rating fall to "do not invest" junk status -- it was just a notch above when Dukakis left office -- he actually budgeted less for fiscal 1992 than the year before. As Jeff Jacoby wrote in City Journal nearly fourteen years ago, "In a political culture where 'cut' commonly means 'raising spending by less than planned,' Weld's accomplishment -- actually reducing spending from one year to the next -- seemed wondrous."

Republicans won a pair of U.S House seats in 1992 and may well have added a third if the Democrats hadn't defeated one of their more vulnerable incumbents in a primary. GOP governors were able to appoint promising Republicans to countywide offices, like sheriff of Bristol County and district attorney in Suffolk County (which contains Boston). The best of those Republicans were often able to subsequently win election in their own right. Even Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry had to scramble to win reelection.

The experiment in two-party politics was short-lived, as was the Republicans' commitment to delivering a decidedly different kind of government than the Democrats. In time, Massachusetts trended back toward the Democrats. The Republicans turned against one another: Weld arguably didn't do enough to help Mitt Romney in his 1994 campaign against Kennedy; Malone's primary challenge to Cellucci in 1998 cost the GOP a statewide office and set up the Democrats' strongest 2002 gubernatorial candidate, Romney's '02 coattails didn't extend to Dan Grabauskas, a credible GOP nominee for treasurer; some complain Romney isn't doing enough to help Scott Brown today.

But the point is that even in Massachusetts, there are times when all the assembled powers of the big liberal editorial boards, big government, big labor, and big businesses overfed with favors from Democratic fat cats can't beat outraged taxpayers who just want to throw the bums out. They get tired of holier-than-thou liberals who don't recognize the star pitchers they root for or who make jokes about tattoos when the subject turns to their teenage daughters' access to abortion.

There have been close calls that have gone down to defeat, like the 2002 ballot initiative to abolish the state income tax or Romney's race against Kennedy. And there have been successful revolts, like Ed King's election as governor -- as a Democrat! -- and the enactment of Proposition 2 ½. Soon we'll learn which side of the ledger Scott Brown is on and whether he'll join Bill Weld as a Massachusetts Republican surprise.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter @jimantle.