BOSTON — A strange wind is blowing in Massachusetts. Or maybe it’s a red tide. Just over the past few weeks, there have been signs that the Democratic Party cannot necessarily take the homeland of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis for granted.
Consider: The polls show Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker closing in on Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. At least one survey shows Patrick’s lead within the margin of error. Independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill has lost his Republican running mate and campaign manager, possibly paving the way for Baker to consolidate the center-right vote.
Patrick hasn’t been within shouting distance of 50 percent in recent memory. Baker and Cahill combined have regularly outpolled him for months. Deval was the first Democratic governor since Dukakis. After that Massachusetts miracle, it took 20 years to elect another.
Fourteen-term Democratic Congressman Barney Frank isn’t in Deval Patrick territory yet, but he’s clearly running scared. He has already had to call Bill Clinton into Massachusetts to campaign for him. Republican Sen. Scott Brown carried his congressional district in January’s special election. A mid-September poll showed 35-year-old political neophyte Sean Bielat trailing Frank by just 10 points. When I met with Bielat at CPAC earlier this year, he told me that getting Frank to spend time and campaign money in the district — rather than helping other Democrats nationwide — would be progress.
State Rep. Jeff Perry is receiving national Republican support in his run for the open seat in Massachusetts’ tenth district, meaning the party sees it as a prime pickup opportunity. The Young Gun has perhaps the most potent political operation on Cape Cod and recently won a landslide victory over a former statewide elected official in the GOP primary. Brown carried the district with over 60 percent of the vote.
Brown, of course, is the Republican currently keeping Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat warm. His example reminded people that Republicans can win in Massachusetts, even though it is the bluest of states.
It’s happened before. In 1990, Republicans swept the governorship, lieutenant governorship, and state treasurer’s office. They won enough seats in the state legislature to sustain the new governor’s vetoes. In 1992, Republicans followed up by winning two congressional seats. They may well have won a third if the Democratic incumbent hadn’t lost his primary. Republicans held all these gains in 1994 and gave Kennedy a scare.
Republicans held the governor’s mansion for 16 straight years, winning four straight elections. But the attempt to turn Massachusetts into a two-party state failed. William Weld won two terms, the second with 71 percent of the vote, but ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1996 and then left the commonwealth in a quixotic attempt to become Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Mexico over Jesse Helms’ objections.
Paul Cellucci won a tough gubernatorial election in 1998, a bad year for Republicans nationally. But the party forfeited the state treasurer’s office when Joe Malone decided to run against Cellucci rather than seek reelection. And Cellucci decided to become George W. Bush’s ambassador to Canada rather than finish his term.
Mitt Romney was victorious in 2002, shunting aside unelectable acting Gov. Jane Swift. But he made only one serious attempt to increase the number of Republicans in the state legislature. When that effort failed, Romney decided against a second term and ran for president instead.
The moral of this story: there is a constituency in Massachusetts willing to contemplate two-party government, but no one has stayed around long enough to cultivate it. The Republican Party as it exists in the Bay State is in no shape to offer much of an alternative to the Democratic status quo.
Could that be changing? A center-right majority can be assembled in this Democratic state. Weld, Cellucci, Romney, and Brown showed that. It isn’t a huge majority — except for Weld’s reelection, they all polled in the low 50s — but it is enough to win elections. When statewide races get close, Democrats tend to lose.
On ballot initiatives, Massachusetts voters have also frequently displayed a conservative bent. Referenda capping property taxes, cutting the state income tax rate, ending rent control, eliminating bilingual education, and passing term limits have passed. A measure creating a graduated state income tax failed. Another abolishing the income tax entirely won 45 percent of the vote in 2002, though it was more resoundingly defeated six years later. The political class has worked overtime to keep both racial preferences and same-sex marriage off the ballot.
There is, of course, no opportunity so great that the Republican Party can’t blow it. That’s true throughout the country, but it is an even greater likelihood in Massachusetts, where the Stupid Party frequently lives up to its nickname. But eventually, taxpayers get tired of shouldering the burden. The anger that elected Scott Brown hasn’t subsided and his win may not be an anomaly.