N. Richard Greenfield files the following dispatch from Massachusetts:
It was just last year when Scott Brown was in the van of events that saw Republican victories in two big-state governor's races and the historic march to majorities in the House of Representatives in Washington. Brown won the "Kennedy Seat" in the U.S. Senate and did it with style, substance and more than a bit of good fortune. Offering himself up as the stop-gap vote in the Senate against President Obama's health care bill, he tapped into a deep vein of resentment that produced votes from all three segments of the Commonwealth's polity: Democrat, Republican and Independent. He added his personal flair to this effort, crisscrossing the state in his well-worn pick up truck, his everyman symbol. Brown ran a great race, aided by an opponent who didn't. In fact she didn't even see him coming until very late in the game. Under pressure, Middlesex County (north & west of Boston) District Attorney Martha Coakley went from gaffe to gaffe, including claiming Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling was a Yankee fan, which is a remark tough to walk-back in Boston.
Even though Brown ran a great campaign and Coakley a poor one, few objective observers were picking Brown to win until a week before the vote, when noted pollster/commentator Charlie Cook said Brown really could do it. It was a shocker, because Republican wins in the Bay State are not that common.
Republicans do regularly win governorships in Massachusetts, but they can do that mainly because of their opponent's malfeasance or ineptitude. The Democrats have seen three of their most recent Speakers of the State Legislature convicted of felonies. It is rare for states that are so dominated by one party to produce great candidates who know how to compete in a general election. A majority party picks their own winners before an election either behind closed doors or in a primary, and as a result their candidates climb to high office without experiencing a serious general election challenge.
Democrats dominate the congressional seats and constitutional offices beyond the governorship. There were two short-lived Republican aberrations in 1992, but by and large the probability of sending a Republican to Congress from Massachusetts was as remote as the Sox winning the World Series prior to 2004. When they say that Congressional incumbents around the country win reelection 95% of the time, they don't mean Massachusetts, where incumbents win 100% of the time and they're all Democrats.
The math works heavily against the GOP. Recent 2010 registration numbers showed Republicans with 11% of registered voters versus 37% for the Democrats. Independents weigh in at 51%.
The Brown election was the first one where the Tea Party came into play, and while in Massachusetts their numbers weren't very big, they did bring a vibrancy and enthusiasm to Brown's race that wasn't available from a normally moribund Massachusetts Republican Party. They rallied around Brown because they perceived Scott Brown's empathy for issues they felt strongly about: health care, fiscal sanity, strong defense. In a state with such an overwhelming majority of Independents and Democrats, a Republican needs to gain traction with specific issues where there is common ground. Health care did it for Brown this time, but he needs another issue to claim as his own for his next race.
We can see Brown looking for that issue in Congress now. Brown's votes for the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, the Start Treaty ratification, Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell repeal and other Democrat backed bills don't endear him to the Jim DeMints of the Senate, though his vote against the Dream Act immigration bill did.
The standard way for a New England Republican to try and survive in the Senate is a well-worn path. It is a visible effort to be more 'bi-partisan' rather than less. A bit more socially liberal than most. And certainly more symbolically "flexible" than the rest of the party. New England's Republican Senators say they want "mixed seating" with the Democrats during the State of the Union. Brown joined Collins and Snowe of Maine along with the New Hampshire's newly minted Republican Senator, Kelly Ayotte, in their move to sit not with just their own party during the speech. It's symbolic, but over the years this move-to-the-middle symbolism hasn't been particularly successful.
Two examples of that are Ed Brooke in Massachusetts and more recently John Sununu in New Hampshire. Moving away from one's base symbolically or otherwise dampens the enthusiasm in one's own party and gains little in the way of adherence from members of the other side who know that the party they already belong to is highly invested in those issues that they feel are important to them. Independents and Democrats need to be persuaded that a Republican has something to offer that is not just a weaker version of what they support already. Health care worked for Brown precisely because there was no equivocation. It evoked the passions in his base, but it also gained traction amongst a large number of those 85+% of the voters who choose not to identify as Republican in his state. He has to find that brace of issues for 2012 that will work for him the same way, and there's little time and possibly little room within which to do that.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts today stands as a single party monolith, but it wasn't always that way. As a two party state, Massachusetts's brand of ethnic politics saw Catholics and big city dwellers facing off against Protestant suburban and rural voters. Even when the numbers moved inexorably toward the Democrats, the religious tinge to this rivalry lingered. During that balanced era, both Democrats and Republicans went to Congress from Massachusetts. Republicans sent Senators Saltonstall, Lodge, and Brooke to D.C. Republican Joe Martin of Attleboro served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives briefly in the mid-1950s before Cambridge's Tip O'Neill solidified that office for the Democrats for decades. Complete Democratic dominance in the state came with the advent of the Kennedys as national figures. Until Brown's election, Massachusetts voters hadn't sent a Republican to Washington for close to 20 years.
Scott Brown's win was only for a 2-year term, and now he has to do it all over again. And in 2012 the Democrats will know he's coming. The numerical reality he faces in Massachusetts hasn't changed much since he was elected. This past November, while the rest of the nation chose to send more Republicans to Congress, Massachusetts stuck with 10 Democrats. That included the open seat in the Cape Cod 10th congressional district that was supposed to be the best shot the Republicans had. Brown was heavily invested in that race and came up empty. The almost too difficult upcoming task for Scott Brown is to prove that his January win of last year was real and not just a flukey by-election accident.
Republican candidates do, in spite of their thin registration numbers, manage to get anywhere from 25-44% of the votes cast in both Congressional contests and statewide races when they are able to field candidates. But without a strong candidate at the head of their ticket or without a unifying issue to coalesce around, the number trends towards the lower end of that range. In most states a 30+ year incumbent in the State Auditor's office would draw a competitive challenge; an aggressive young candidate would venture out to take on 17-term Ed Markey in Congress; or maybe the quintessential Fannie Mae flak Barney Frank would merit a consistent challenge. But it's rarely the case in Massachusetts. Most serious candidates realize that there is little chance of winning against well-entrenched incumbents. But that changed last year.
Brown's ascension gave hope. Some viable candidates came forward. There were even vibrant primaries on the Republican side of the ticket for most offices, a sign that the Republican label was perceived to have value and was worth seeking. But when all was said and done, the highest percentage of votes these challengers could get in any congressional race was 42% and that was in that 10th District. In statewide races, up and down the ticket it was the same story. Some excellent Republican candidates foundered on the same mathematical reality that kept them at 45% of the vote or less. There were some state legislative seats that came to the GOP, but no tickets for Republicans to Washington were punched and no statewide offices on Beacon Hill now have a Republican name on the door. Overall, the newly minted Republican strivers were crushed.
January 2010 was a game changer for national politics, but did not do much to alter the situation on the ground in Massachusetts. Scott Brown may have changed the Senate, but that doesn't mean Massachusetts changed. What happened on November 2, 2010 in the Bay State means that Brown's re election in November of 2012 might be as problematical as it was in January of 2010, which was in actual fact closer to a miracle than the norm.