Checking the elephant for a pulse

Can the state GOP’s new chairman breathe life into the party?

Here in Massachusetts we have a sort-of democracy in which the Democratic Party wins most of the elections and the Republican Party contends only for the governorship or the rare open US Senate seat. But competitive elections are essential to democratic accountability, and we can’t have that without some life from the Massachusetts Republican Party. The GOP right now is at a crossroads, which is better than its usual dead end. There is some opportunity for growth, but also ample chance to revert to irrelevance. 

We’ve been having a lively debate on the health of the state GOP over at MassPoliticsProfs.com. My colleague Jerold Duquette argues that the Tea Party backers have all the energy in the party, but their views are more Mississippi than Massachusetts, and that spells doom. Professor Peter Ubertaccio recently hosted a forum at the Martin Institute at Stonehill College with three Tea Party leaders.  He found them angry at the nation’s state of affairs alright, but focused and committed to organizing for change, even in Massachusetts. They were realistic but upbeat, and they are developing a network.

There are more good signs for the state GOP, starting with the 2010 victory of Sen. Scott Brown. He is in a tough race against Elizabeth Warren for sure, but anyone underestimating Brown is likely to wind up with their back in a ditch. Another good sign is the ability of the party to double its numbers in the state House of Representatives in 2010 and win special elections for House seats in Lakeville and Spencer since then. Former state GOP chair Jennifer Nassour recently visited a class I teach on Massachusetts politics and told us of the hard work and time spent in recruiting able candidates. That paid off in 2010.

The Democrats dependably serve up a generous helping of scandals, and there is some turmoil in the House, as shown by Speaker Robert DeLeo’s recent removal of Rep. Charles Murphy from his leadership post. Labor was reeling in the most recent legislative session, with even Democrats accepting the need for stronger managerial controls in public employment. There are intellectual engines for conservatives from the Pioneer Institute and the Beacon Hill Institute.  Redmassgroup.com provides a punchy daily blog on conservative, libertarian, and party politics.

Barney Frank is leaving. Bill Keating is moving. Richard Tisei is in against John Tierney. These are all opportunities for Republicans to compete and win congressional seats. And as state legislators and other elected officials attempt to move to Congress, they leave behind open seats. Whereas incumbents win at least 95 percent of the time, an open seat is much easier to capture for the out party. If Mitt Romney gets the Republican nomination for president, that puts our former governor and Scott Brown atop the GOP ticket. They could even build a coordinated campaign that would help down ballot candidates here.

But then . . .

As Professor Ubertaccio notes, if Newt Gingrich is the Republican nominee, that would be a catastrophe for the Massachusetts GOP. If Professor Duquette is right about the energy of the Tea Party, the truly weird Bill Hudak knocks off Tisei in the primary and goes on to squander the chance to beat Tierney, again. Should Brown lose to Warren he can thank Sen. Mitch McConnell; if the Republicans in the US Senate had been willing to let Warren to become head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Brown would be sitting pretty. That would be an ironic application of the national party’s long-time devotion to debilitating the chances of northeast Republicans in favor of pursuing votes among Georgia birthers and South Carolina faith healers.

Then there is the issue of party-building. Nassour left as chair of the party as she awaits the birth of her third child. Robert Maginn is in as chair and the question is, will he tend to the prospects of Romney and Brown exclusively or use the opportunity to build the grassroots? (This week came news that former Republican congressman Peter Blute – his ill-fated Massport booze cruise now far in the rearview mirror – has signed on to assist Maginn as deputy chairman.) The last time the GOP made major gains, in 1990, the Weld administration failed to build on it. In 2004, Romney’s “Team Reform” ran challengers throughout the state, but the candidates were amateurish and the results were a disaster. Maginn needs to have the optimistic communications ability and leadership of Nassour, the vision and commitment of Ray Shamie, and the hard-as-nails drive of Sandy Tennant.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
The Democrats looked like a permanent minority in Massachusetts until Tip O’Neill led a takeover of the state House of Representatives in 1948. Gingrich showed US House Republicans how to stop getting sand kicked in their faces in 1994. Such triumphs took time to develop, but the hard work was done. Republicans in this state can’t be content to just contest the governorship and defend Brown. Those things are important, but so is building a sustainable party that can contest the Democrats across the board. It’s up to you, Chairman Maginn.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.