Republican congressional candidates try to get noticed by Bay State voters-and by their own party

Ken Chase is running for Congress, he says, to give voters a choice.”Fundamentally, there is a corruption of the process at the congressional level,” says the Medford native, who graduated from Malden Catholic High School and Boston College. “The crushing majority of races are not races at all, or there is just token opposition.”

But if Chase wants to offer more than token opposition, he has his work cut out for him. A former aide to onetime GOP US Senate candidate (and John Kerry opponent) Ray Shamie, Chase ran unsuccessfully for state representative and for a seat on Medford’s city council in the 1980s. Now he’s taking on Ed Markey, the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, who in 14 campaigns has never garnered less than 62 percent of the vote. As of August 25, which is the end of the last Federal Election Commission reporting period, Markey had more than $2.1 million in the bank, Chase just $13,000.

Challengers for House seats have a victory rate of less than 2 percent.

Chase, who runs a business teaching Spanish and French to schoolchildren and until September lived in Cambridge, just outside the 7th Congressional District, is facing one of the toughest roads in politics—and not just because of Democratic dominance in the Bay State. In the last three election cycles, only 16 House incumbents nationally have lost their seats. Challengers have a victory rate of less than 2 percent.

When it comes to the state Legislature, Massachusetts Republicans have reason for enthusiasm this year, with a popular governor in place and the biggest field of candidates for state House and Senate in years (see State of the States). Chase and the rest of the GOP congressional slate hope that enthusiasm will spread to them—and help to unseat at least one of the state’s 10 Democratic members of the US House of Representatives in November. But skeptics abound.

“The Washington congressional slate is hopeless,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University.

Hopeless or not, there are challengers to six of the state’s 10 Democratic congressional incumbents this year. Five have Republican opponents, while Barney Frank is facing independent candidate Chuck Morse, a conservative radio talk show host. Four congressmen—John Olver, Richard Neal, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch—are unopposed.

Several of this year’s Republican challengers have made the traditional pilgrimage to Washington, DC. Novice candidates go to the nation’s capital hoping to win the favor of, and assistance from, their party’s campaign wing—in this case, the National Republican Congressional Committee—and they go to raise funds from the myriad political action committees run by corporations and interest groups. They also go to convince top political prognosticators, such as Charlie Cook, of the National Journal, and Stuart Rothenberg, of Roll Call, to take their candidacies seriously.

Ron Crews, who is challenging James McGovern for the 3rd Congressional District seat, met with Ron Kaufman, a Washington lobbyist and Republican National Committeeman for Massachusetts, as well as with GOP powerbroker Grover Norquist. Chase went to Washington for two days of candidate training with the NRCC, while lobbyist Mike Jones, a Plymouth native who is running against William Delahunt, has used his Washington connections to garner fundraising help from former White House chief of staff John Sununu, US Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, and US Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

But this crop of Massachusetts Republicans has made little headway inside the Beltway. When Chase asked the NRCC for funding, he was told to come back after he’d built a serious campaign organization. And the $193,000 Jones raised by September was far short of the $1 million he said last year he would need to challenge Delahunt. This fall, most of the PAC money is flowing to incumbents who face little chance of losing. Beyond that, the interest groups and the parties are concentrating on a handful of races that are truly competitive, most of them open seats left by a member retiring or running for higher office.

According to political analyst Cook, only 11 of the 435 congressional seats nationwide are truly toss-ups this year. Another 10 Republican seats and 11 Democratic seats are considered at risk. Not one is in Massachusetts, and only one is in New England: Republican Rob Simmons’s 2nd District Connecticut seat.

Dismissed up and down the line as non-contenders, the Republican congressional candidates have had little success convincing Gov. Mitt Romney to include them in his Team Reform push, or to throw any of his fundraising largesse their way. After weeks of pleading, the GOP slate convinced Romney in September to do a photo shoot at the Union Club near the State House. Crews handed Romney a pledge envelope. If the governor provides some fundraising help, “that would be wonderful,” Crews says. “But I’m not anticipating it.”

By late summer, Jones led the GOP field in fundraising with less than $200,000, followed by Crews with $84,000. In contrast, the Democratic members had raised sums ranging from Richard Neal’s $431,579 to Markey’s $1,979,963 and Martin Meehan’s $2,513,389. Markey and Meehan plan to use their war chests to run for Senate if John Kerry is elected president; Barney Frank, who raised $800,000 but had only $331,00 in cash on hand as of late August, has picked up the fundraising pace to compete for the Senate seat as well.

Republican Party officials say that, in Massachusetts, they have to pick their battles, and this year the focus is on the State House, not the Capitol. Much of the party’s hope lies in recruiting candidates for state Legislature in communities where Romney did well against Democrat Shannon O’Brien in 2002. National committeeman Kaufman says the state party is “going to try to challenge Democrats at the congressional level, but our first and foremost goal is to pick up seats in the [state] House and Senate.” If the state party has $1 million to spend, he says, it’s better spent on 20 state races than on one congressional seat.

That leaves Republican congressional candidates with shoe leather, rather than advertising, to carry them to victory. They are knocking on doors, making the rounds at community meetings, holding signs, and marching in parades. “It’s tough running against an incumbent, especially a really entrenched one,” says Jones, referring to Delahunt. “The hardest thing is the money.” So Jones is out every morning, shaking hands at Dunkin’ Donuts. In the afternoons, he and volunteers hang banners from overpasses along the Route 3 corridor from Quincy to Cape Cod.

GOP candidates say it’s a mistake to pigeonhole Bay Staters as liberals.

Still, some congressional aspirants hold out hope that Romney’s Team Reform legislative candidates will boost their own efforts, and vice versa. “We have some very good candidates for state Legislature,” says McGovern challenger Ron Crews. “The voters they bring to the polls will vote for me, and those I bring to the polls will vote for them.”

Whether enough voters will mark their ballots for any of the GOP hopefuls, for Legislature or Congress, remains to be seen. But all of the Republican challengers say it’s a mistake to pigeonhole Massachusetts voters as diehard liberals.

“People are people,” says Crews, a former Georgia state legislator who made a name for himself running the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute’s campaign against gay marriage earlier this year. “Once you get out of certain pockets of Boston, Cambridge, and Provincetown, there are many folks who share my values. Towns like Attleboro and Plainville are just like towns in Georgia.”

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Jones says it’s incumbent Delahunt, not he, who’s out of step with voters of the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from blue-collar Quincy to the South Shore and Cape Cod—areas where Republican governors, at least, have run strong. “He has an ultra-liberal record,” says Jones.

Finally, Republicans take heart in the decline of Massachusetts voters registered as Democrats, from 46 percent in 1980 to 36 percent in 2004, even if the Republican ranks are not growing. Today, nearly half (49.8 percent) of Bay State voters are not registered with any party. The unenrolled “are people Republicans see as potential targets,” says political science professor Dennis Hale of Boston College. The emergence of serious two-party competition for congressional seats will take time, says Hale. But, he adds, if the Republicans “can just win a couple, the loser label disappears.”