Why Massachusetts Bucked the 2010 Republican Wave

No candidate, however established, can take voters for granted.

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Republicans gleeful over the upset election of Scott Brown to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy were understandably hopeful that they could weaken the longtime Democratic domination in the Bay State. Capitalizing on voter anger and a fierce anti-establishment mood, the GOP could have taken out Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and picked up as many as three of Massachusetts’s 10 congressional seats. Instead, Republicans hit a thick blue wall on Election Day, failing to pick up any congressional seats or statewide offices.

It was a mistake for national Republicans to interpret Brown’s election as a conservative shift in still reliably-Democratic Massachusetts. But it is also a mistake for Democrats to assume they are forever safe here because they survived such a challenging election cycle.

The lesson from Brown’s win was not that Massachusetts is getting redder in political tone; it is that no candidate, however established, can take voters for granted. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank figured that out early, campaigning hard in both his primary and general election. Frank, who in another year would have had to mount only a nominal campaign for his 16th term, campaigned like a newcomer. He lent his campaign $200,000 to fend off a challenge from GOP nominee Sean Bielat, and ran the sort of touchy-feely biography TV ads normally necessary only for the least-known of political contenders. Frank won handily, but by a margin that indicated he might have lost if he had not campaigned so aggressively.

[See where Frank gets his campaign money.]

Patrick’s re-election to the governor’s office was as much a reflection of the poor campaign run by his opponent, Charlie Baker, as it was Patrick’s popularity among Massachusetts Democrats. Baker, political observers generally agree, is a better candidate and potential public servant than he appeared in his campaign. Baker failed to connect with voters--particularly women--and probably did not help his gender gap problem when he appeared at a rally for GOP congressional candidate Jeff Perry. Perry (another Republican who lost a race the GOP could have picked up) was dogged by accusations that he did nothing to stop an illegal strip-search and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl by another cop under the supervision of Perry, who was then also a police officer.

Massachusetts Democrats bucked the national trend because the GOP had generally weak candidates. Bielat, a Harvard-educated Marine veteran, was the strongest of the Republican congressional nominees in the Bay State, but still lacked the campaign experience to take on a political and intellectual heavyweight as Frank. Rep. John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, might have been vulnerable; he’s more liberal than his district and a financial scandal involving his wife might have turned off some voters. But the man running against Tierney, Bill Hudak, was tainted by, among other things, placing a sign on his lawn depicting President Obama as a member of al Qaeda.

[See an Opinion slide show of bad 2010 candidates.]

Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas should have been a juicy target for the GOP. But they nominated Jon Golnik, who once had his license suspended for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and who was an executive for AIG, the insurance giant that got a taxpayer bailout and then gave bonuses to its executives. Tsongas won big. [See who supports Tsongas.]

In the 10th District--the most conservative in the state, and one Brown won by 20 points in his special election--Republicans had a clear shot, especially with the retirement of popular Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt. But Perry, a Tea Party movement-backed candidate, could not shake the taint of his involvement in the illegal strip search case. District Attorney Bill Keating, who was not a terribly strong candidate, won the race by five points for the Democrats.

Massachusetts Democrats are celebrating big wins, but they should not get too comfortable. The Bay State has been heavily Democratic-leaning for so long that the GOP simply does not have a good bench of potential candidates. Better recruitment on the part of the Republicans could have made a difference this year--and may in future election cycles.

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