CPR for the GOP

With the national party dragging them down, local Republicans need to declare independence

Despite national ascendancy and a 10-year hold on the governor’s office, Massachusetts Republicans seem weaker than ever. We asked diagnosticians from both ends of the political spectrum how to revive the state’s GOP. See Mickey Edwards’s response here.

There’s an old joke about a dog-food company on the verge of bankruptcy. For years, the company has tried everything to reverse its fortunes. It has changed the name of the product, the colors on the label, even the breed of dog used in its television commercials. But nothing has worked, and at a company-wide meeting the exasperated CEO calls out, “Dammit, why aren’t we selling more dog food?” After a long silence, the answer comes from a tiny voice in the back of the room: “Dogs don’t like it.”

Well, there’s a reason why the Republican Party does so poorly in elections here: Massachusetts voters don’t like it.

Short of actually outlawing the party, we could hardly make our feelings any more clear. Massachusetts gave Bill Clinton a 33-point margin over Bob Dole in 1996, making us the most lopsided state in the country. (Utah, often caricatured as a state full of conformist Mormons, had a more divided electorate, giving Dole only a 21-point edge.) That same year, Massachusetts elected its first all-Democratic congressional delegation, despite warnings that we’d have little clout in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Even with the Big Dig far from paid for, voters went for philosophy over pork, tossing out the last two Republican incumbents (Peter Torkildsen and Peter Blute, the latter handicapped by a name that rhymed with “Newt”), despite their frantic attempts to distance themselves from their party.

Of course, Massachusetts has been predominantly Democratic since World War II. In 1964, the state gave Lyndon Johnson a 52-point victory over Barry Goldwater. But in that same election, Bay Staters elected a Republican governor (John Volpe) and five Republican congressmen. If the GOP could prosper here during Camelot and the Great Society, why couldn’t it compete during the reign of Bill Clinton–a president who, echoing Ronald Reagan, declared that “the era of big government is over”? And why couldn’t the party get any real traction from its statewide victories in 1990, when Bill Weld became governor and Joe Malone captured the state treasurer’s office?

There are two contradictions at work here, with Massachusetts Republicans caught in the middle. One is that the Republican Party has been getting weaker in Massachusetts at the same time that it’s been growing stronger nationally. The 1990s proved that the Reagan coalition doesn’t always prevail in presidential politics, but the decade was a period of growth for the GOP at every other level of government. It won control of both houses of Congress in 1994, and it smashed the idea of a natural Democratic majority by staying in control in 1996 and 1998. (Before that, the party hadn’t won two consecutive congressional elections since 1930.) Perhaps more important in the long run is that the Republicans have almost reached parity in state legislatures, even in the once solidly Democratic South. There are only six states left where Democrats hold greater than two-to-one majorities in both legislative houses: Arkansas, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. Of these holdouts, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only states where the Republicans have sunk even lower since Newt Gingrich and company took over the US House.

In the country as a whole, the Republican Party has grown from the top down, capitalizing on its strength in presidential elections to attract candidates and voters at the local level. But in Massachusetts, the GOP’s presidential candidates now seem to poison the party’s chances all the way down the ticket. Bill Weld’s gubernatorial victory in 1990 suggested that libertarian-minded Republicans could fashion a majority in this state, but the notorious GOP national convention in 1992–at which Pat Buchanan talked about a “cultural war” in America–may have made the party an even tougher sell in Massachusetts. Weld was easily re-elected as governor (after a term in which he seemed only too happy to work with Democratic legislative leaders such as Billy Bulger), but his political career since then has reinforced the notion that mavericks go only so far. He lost a bid for the US Senate after refusing to pledge that he’d vote against Christian Coalition favorite Trent Lott as majority leader, then watched helplessly as Sen. Jesse Helms (a Lott ally) squelched his nomination as ambassador to Mexico. As a resident of New York, he’s now obviously not much help to the Massachusetts party.

In the post-Weld era, Bay State Republicans are in pathetic shape, but they can’t even count on pity votes. With George W. Bush hauling in countless millions to run for president and congressional Republicans enjoying all the fund-raising benefits that come with being in the the majority, it’s hard for any Republican candidate to claim financial underdog status–even if that claim happens to be true here. And for all the cries of poverty locally, if Republican candidates had a real shot at winning state elections, they’d have no problem raising money, from both local and out-of-state contributors. The truth is that the national Republican Party gave up on Massachusetts after the well-financed but unsuccessful campaigns of Blute, Torkildsen, and US Senate candidates Weld and Mitt Romney. (Gov. Paul Cellucci did narrowly win re-election in 1998, when the booming economy helped GOP incumbents in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania win by landslide margins, and he was lucky enough to face a Democratic candidate with tepid support from his own party’s leaders.)

A second contradiction is that, even as more American voters identify themselves as independent, fewer of them are splitting their ballots between Democratic and Republican candidates. In 1996, Democrats won 49 percent of the aggregate vote for US House candidates, the same percentage won nationwide by Bill Clinton. (Most of the Ross Perot vote went to Republican candidates, which allowed the GOP to narrowly keep control of the House.) Of the 181 districts where Bill Clinton won a majority in 1996, only 31 supported Republican congressional candidates, and all but one of those were incumbents. Put another way, only one of the 74 new House members that year came from a district that gave a majority to the presidential candidate of the other party.

Here’s another statistic of particular concern for the Bay State’s GOP: No Republican congressman who was first elected in 1996, or since then, comes from a district that gave Bob Dole less than 40 percent of the vote. In Massachusetts, Dole got 33 percent in his strongest district.

The revival of straight-ticket voting even in an electorate with declining party loyalty may be attributable to voters who don’t pay much attention to politics, and who don’t know much about congressional candidates other than who’s for the Clinton-Gore administration and who’s against it. But the parties themselves have discouraged ticket-splitting by nominating a narrower range of candidates.

As their national conventions indicate, the parties want to stay “on message” and run both national and state campaigns from the same playbook. A couple of decades ago, one could get elected to Congress as a George Wallace Democrat in East Texas or a Nelson Rockefeller Republican in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. These days, when higher campaign costs mean that candidates must attract contributions from all over the country, few congressional candidates can afford to stray too far from party orthodoxy. As a result of these national party lines, combined with artful redistricting designed to protect incumbents and solidify each party’s base, we’re seeing more and more congressional districts fall into the “safe” category, which is a polite way of saying that they are owned outright by the Democrats or the Republicans. But the virulent conservatism of the Republican Party’s national pitch seems to put all 10 Massachusetts districts out of reach for the GOP.

It’s true that voters seem more inclined to split their ballots when it comes to state constitutional offices, but Re- publicans in Massachusetts have learned that these special cases don’t help them much in the long run. In 1990, Weld had the advantage of running against an abrasive Democrat who seemed more conservative than Weld on social issues. Once in office, he became popular for solving the fiscal mess left by the Dukakis administration, but had little success getting voters excited about ideological issues, such as the privatization of government services.

The election of Joe Malone as state treasurer proved to be even more of a dead end. Years of scandal and old-boy politics under Democratic treasurers bolstered Malone’s argument that it was a good idea not to put all state offices in the hands of one party, and his conservative views on issues such as abortion were irrelevant to the job. But Malone’s stewardship of the treasury yielded a whole new crop of scandals–some of which didn’t come to light until after his unsuccessful run against Cellucci in the 1998 gubernatorial primary. Now the treasurer’s office is back in Democratic hands, and Malone is just another Republican relegated to the political trash bin.

Things look bleak for the Massachusetts GOP, and the party won’t get anywhere by falling back on the two favorite solutions of a political movement in denial: strengthening its “grass roots” and getting out its “message” more effectively. Every Massachusetts voter already knows what the Republican Party stands for, and that’s the problem.

Every Massachusetts voter already knows what the Republican Party stands for–that’s the problem.

Yet most of us recognize the dangers of a one-party state, and we’d like to see a reasonable alternative to the Democrats. Without a viable opposition, the state’s Democrats have become a mushy, slightly-left-of-center party that seems to exist only to stay in power. Voters may be getting uneasy with the secret deliberations and heavy-handed leadership in the state Legislature, but it’s hard to send a message about that, since most incumbents in both houses are running unopposed this November.

There are signs that Bay State voters want another choice. More than half of the state’s voters are enrolled as independents or as members of minor parties. In 1992, Massachusetts was one of Ross Perot’s better states, giving the Texan 22 percent of the vote. Perot carried 15 towns, mostly in the western part of the state, and finished ahead of George Bush in several cities, including Lowell, Lynn, and New Bedford. More recently, insurgent Republican candidate John McCain got 320,000 votes in this year’s presidential primary, almost matching Al Gore’s 337,000 votes in the state considered most supportive of Bill Clinton. According to CNN, McCain got 76 percent of the independents who voted in the primary. The national Republican Party decided it could risk losing the McCainiacs by nominating Bush, but the local GOP can hardly afford to alienate a voting bloc of that size in a state with less than 500,000 registered Republicans.

If things get much worse for the Republicans, it’s possible that a third party–such as the Greens or the Libertarians–could finally capitalize on the fat and lazy condition of the Democratic Party here. But because election laws make such a scenario unlikely, the GOP still has time to recover from its recent run of bad luck. Bay State Republicans, here are some ways you can become a real alternative:

CHANGE THE NAME.This move may seem cosmetic, but it would send a clear message to Massachusetts voters that your candidates are different from Trent Lott and Jesse Helms. There is a precedent here: From the 1940s until a few years ago, the GOP in Minnesota was actually called the Independent Republican Party (partly in response to the state Democrats changing their name to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party). The IR was fairly successful at winning elections, even as Minnesota became one of the most Democratic states in the country in presidential races. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first gubernatorial candidate in decades to be listed on the ballot as a plain old Republican lost to independent Jesse Ventura.

Of course, a name change would have to mean something. The new party could draw up a platform to distinguish itself from the national Republicans on such issues as abortion, gay rights, environmental protection, and campaign financing. Plenty of GOP candidates in this state run to the left on these issues anyway, but they may not be able to get voters to see past the “R” next to their names. If the state GOP were to make a big show of allying itself with the libertarian wing of the national party, rather than the Christian Coalition wing, it would lose some contributors (such as out-of-staters who just want to express their hatred of Ted Kennedy), but it would also prompt a lot of voters to give it another look. And there would still be many issues to use against the Democrats, including taxes, crime, and the overregulation of small businesses in the state.

Far-right Republicans might bolt the newly named party, but they’re not much help anyway.

Far-right Republicans might bolt the newly named party, but they’re not much help in Massachusetts elections anyway. If right-wingers try to start their own party, all the better. Just look at New York, where pro-choice Republican George Pataki upset then-Gov. Mario Cuomo without the support of the state’s Right to Life Party. In fact, the presence of a conservative fringe party probably helped Pataki to appear more moderate, and thus more acceptable in what would be Bill Clinton’s third-best state in 1996.

RUN A CANDIDATE FOR MAYOR OF BOSTON. Another disadvantage for Bay State Republicans is that elections in our largest city are nonpartisan, which means that the GOP gets no automatic spot on the ballot in November. Most other major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, operate on the two-party system, and splits within the Democratic Party often give the Republicans a chance to win. Rudolph Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles both won this way, and they’ve been moderating forces (in terms of ideology, if not temperament) within their state parties. Their elections may also encourage potential Republican candidates to run in legislative and municipal races that were once thought unwinnable.

Normally, it would be tough for a Republican mayoral candidate to make it to the final election in Boston, having to finish first or second in the preliminary–a daunting prospect in an overwhelmingly Democratic town. But in 1997 the city suffered the embarrassment of an uncontested mayoral election. With no Democrat challenging Tom Menino, this was one time when a Republican could have gone head-to-head for the mayor’s office. Actually beating Menino probably would have been impossible, but the campaign would have been a chance to show off some new talent in the biggest media market in the state (and the sixth-biggest in the country), and in a year without any other major races. This kind of gambit paid off for Joe Malone, who ran a suicidal race against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1988 but gained enough credibility to be elected state treasurer two years later.

Running a candidate for mayor would only be worthwhile for the party if he or she could finish with a respectable share of the vote (say, 35 percent). To reach that level, the GOP would have to spend some money and field a candidate liberal enough to be credible in a city that gave Bob Dole only 20 percent of its vote. To do so, the party will also have to shed its apparent indifference to urban issues. (Note Cellucci’s veto of $3 million in summer jobs money for Boston just as violent youth crime flared in the city.) This perception may not be fatal in sprawling states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, where there are as many voters living in small towns as in major cities, but it’s a big handicap in Massachusetts, the third most densely populated state in the country. Running against “big-city politics,” a tactic that often helps Republicans against candidates from New York City or Chicago, doesn’t seem very smart in the Bay State, especially when the worst one can say about Boston is that it can’t accommodate all the people who want to move there.

One would think that the Republican Party might have learned something from its most successful statewide candidate of the past 30 years, William Weld, emerging from the staunchly Democratic city of Cambridge. The Republicans should be begging Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin to run against Menino–and pledging enough money to make the race competitive. They should be looking at Pennsylvania, where four-term US Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate and hugely popular Republican, began his career as district attorney of Philadelphia County. But something tells me that the tiny band of suburbanites who run the state GOP really don’t want to expand their party toward the cities.

STAY OUT OF PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS. George W. Bush has apparently quashed a plan that would have taken away New Hampshire’s right to hold the first Republican presidential primary every four years. Too bad for the Massachusetts GOP, whose leaders keep getting distracted by the primary next door. Hooking up with presidential candidates well to the right of the Massachusetts electorate, they pursue White House jobs at the expense of their popularity at home.

The latest casualty is Gov. Cellucci, who long ago pledged his loyalty to Bush in hopes of nabbing a cabinet post. (The Department of Transportation, formerly headed by John Volpe and Andrew Card, seems to be the dumping ground for Massachusetts Republicans who help swing a few hundred primary votes in New Hampshire. But after the Big Dig overruns, even that sinecure seems a long shot for Cellucci.) At first, Bush ran as a moderate, but an unexpectedly strong challenge by John McCain sent him running to the religious right for support. Bush won the nomination but badly lost the Massachusetts primary, and Cellucci suddenly looked a lot more conservative than he did when he was elected governor in 1998. And his predecessor, William Weld, didn’t do himself any favors at home by touting Pete Wilson–pro-choice but cool on gay rights and hostile toward immigrants–for president in 1992.

Perhaps Republicans are so lonely in Massachusetts that they’ll do anything for a job in Washington, even if it means burning bridges here. But anyone interested in sticking around might want to keep his or her mouth shut during the next presidential race.

Will the Massachusetts GOP adopt any of these suggestions? Probably not. I’ve always opposed Republicans, so I can give advice safe in the knowledge that they’ll be too suspicious to take advantage of it. At the same time, I believe that a genuine two-party system would benefit everyone in Massachusetts–everyone except the hacks at the State House who really don’t have any political beliefs. More competition means less corruption, and new candidates can be a vehicle for new ideas. But the state Republican Party can’t be an agent of reform if it won’t cut its ties to a national Re-publican Party that most Massachusetts voters can’t stand.

Meet the Author

At this writing, it’s not clear how successful the Republicans have been nationally with George W. Bush and his “compassionate conservatism.” But even if he wins, Massachusetts Republicans shouldn’t expect the Bush formula to work for statewide candidates in 2002. It’s just slapping a new label on the same old dog food.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer in Boston.