Nov. 10, 2002
It speaks well of the Massachusetts Democratic Party that it reacted to Tuesday's election with candid self-criticism. Leading Democrats rued their party's incoherent message; some even called for replacing the state chairman, Philip Johnston. Among Bay State Republicans, by contrast, there were no recriminations, no soul-searching. Anyone who didn't know better would think the Republicans had triumphed across the board.
In fact, except for Mitt Romney's election as governor -- admittedly no small deal -- Nov. 5 was a disaster for the state GOP. The Democrats won every other statewide office, 85 percent of the Legislature, and every seat in the congressional delegation, as well as eight of the 11 district attorney slots and 12 of the 14 registries of probate.
The reason so few Republicans won is that so few Republicans ran. Of the 160 state representative districts, they fielded candidates in just 62. Of the 40 senate districts, just 14. In what turned out to be a banner year for Republicans nationwide, the Massachusetts GOP mostly sat the election out.
In this space two years ago, I wrote, "What a disgrace. All over this state, there are conservative foot soldiers just itching to give the Democrats a fight, if only they had some Republican officers to lead them. But the foremost Republican in Massachusetts -- Governor Paul Cellucci -- shows no more interest in leading his party than Bill Weld did before him." Or, as it turned out, than Jane Swift did after him.
Now the foremost Republican in the state is Mitt Romney. In his career to date, he has turned around a tottering consulting firm and restored luster to a badly tarnished Olympics. He is confident he can rescue Beacon Hill from its fiscal crisis and slice $1 billion from the state budget. All well and good, but let's see if he's up to a real challenge: resurrecting the Massachusetts Republican Party.
Romney's victory proved that the Democratic machine, even when operating at peak strength, can be licked. But as long as the state's power structure remains overwhelmingly Democratic, he will have to battle for every inch of his agenda. Massachusetts voted against a Gang of Three, but dealing with the Gang of Two won't be easy, either. Not when they have armies of Democrats to back them up while he doesn't even have enough Republicans to sustain a veto.
Which is why Romney has to make the rebuilding of the GOP an urgent priority. That job should begin today. And it should begin by dusting off the road map that was followed the last time the party played to win.
When industrialist Ray Shamie became chairman of the state GOP 15 years ago, it was a debt-ridden, demoralized shambles. He hired Sandy Tennant as his executive director, and the two of them set about rebuilding the party from the ground up.
"We divided the state into regions," Tennant recollects. "In each one we had a political director whose job was to find candidates for every Senate and House race, every county race, every municipal race." The goal, he says, was "to see R's up and down the ballot."
Shamie revamped the fundraising operation, personally working the phones and reaching out to supporters who could help finance the party's reconstruction. Tennant hired a staff of 25, and put them to work amassing voter data, computerizing the party's chaotic files, setting up media events. Candidates attended weekend "campaign schools" to learn everything from how to conduct opposition research to how to get out the vote.
All the while, Shamie and Tennant avidly pressed their party's core message of lower taxes and greater freedom. They encouraged conservative Democrats to switch parties, and brought GOP headliners in from out of state.
They hustled. And the payoff came in 1990, when Republicans won the governor's, lieutenant governor's, and treasurer's offices, plus 40 percent of the state Senate. Massachusetts once again had a functioning two-party system, a fact confirmed two years later when they won a pair of seats in Congress.
But after Shamie and Tennant left, Weld -- then Cellucci, then Swift -- let the GOP sink back into oblivion. Romney inherits a hollow shell of a party, and it will again take a lot of hard work and hustle to restore it to life. It can happen, but only if the governor-elect takes a strong personal interest in making it happen.
Among other things, that means finding a party chairman and executive director with exceptional energy and savvy. It means once more making the state GOP a hub of activity and advocacy. It means pruning the deadwood on the 80-member Republican state committee.
But above all it means recruiting candidates -- not just for the marquee races, but for selectman and alderman and state rep. Healthy parties grow from the bottom up. Local offices are the farm team where major-league politicians learn the ropes and make connections. They, not governors and senators, are a party's future.
Even for a turnaround artist like Romney, producing "R's up and down the ballot" by 2004 won't be easy. But if he meant what he said about the dangers of one-party government, he hasn't got a choice.