Can the Republicans Make a Comeback in Massachusetts?

First things first: The noise on the right about Republican Scott Brown pulling off a shocking upset in the January 19 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is just that.

The right’s giddiness comes from a new poll – conducted by (who else?) Rasmussen – that shows Brown, a state senator from the suburbs south of Boston, pulling within nine points of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who cruised to the Democratic nomination in December.

And now, some conservatives are talking about winning the race, humiliating Democrats in a deeply blue state, and – suddenly armed with a 41st vote in the Senate – driving a last-minute stake through the heart of health care reform.

Take it from this Bay State native: It ain’t happening.

Brown, to his credit, has run a savvy campaign that has found clever ways to attract attention. And he’s a marketable candidate – confident, good on television, and attractive enough to have once posed nude in Cosmopolitan. Coakley, meanwhile, is mimicking the unimaginative front-runner’s strategy she employed in the primary, trying to run out the clock while making as little noise as possible.

That’s the perfect recipe for Brown’s poll numbers to peak. But rest assured, if the Rasmussen finding is replicated in other public polls – and in her own internals – Coakley will have the resources to saturate the Boston (and Providence and Springfield) airwaves with attack ads and to win ugly. Plus, she can rely on a Democratic turnout operation on Election Day that, even on a bad day, will dwarf whatever effort the GOP musters.

The final margin may not be impressive, but Coakley will win this race – and Senate Democrats will still have the 60 votes they need to pass health care reform.

Still, it’s true that the Massachusetts contest is closer than most people expected, and closer than it would have been had it been held a few years ago. This has everything to do with an underappreciated dynamic that will loom large in 2010, particularly in Democratic-friendly states like Massachusetts: The disappearance of the Gingrich/Bush shield, which protected Democratic candidates for nearly two decades.

Let’s consider what’s happened in Massachusetts over the last 20 years. Yes, it’s long been a Democratic bastion, but when the 1990s arrived, Republicanism was actually on the rise in the state. Mixing economic conservatism and cultural liberalism, the party claimed the governorship in 1990 (when Bill Weld defeated John Silber with the help of liberal suburbanites) and won enough seats in the state Senate (16 out of 40) to sustain the new governor’s veto.

Two years later, two Republicans – Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen – won congressional seats, and on the morning after the state’s 1994 primary, Kennedy awoke to a poll that placed him two points behind Mitt Romney, his (then) little-known Republican challenger – the only time in his 47-year Senate career that Kennedy every trailed in a Senate poll. Kennedy would come back to win that race, but the state of the Republican Party in Massachusetts heading into that ’94 campaign wasn’t bad at all. (Weld won a second term that year by a record-smashing 42 points.)

Then the Republican Revolution of November ’94 happened. With Newt Gingrich crowned as House Speaker, a new image of the GOP took hold: the party of Southern evangelicals and their ideological fanaticism. With this brand of conservatism defining their party, there would be no more fair hearings for Republican candidates in Massachusetts.

In 1996, Weld, despite his staggering popularity, lost a Senate race to John Kerry by seven points. That same year, Blute and Torkildsen, the state’s two GOP congressmen, both lost their seats – and no Republican has won a House race in Massachusetts since then. One by one, the GOP early ’90s gains in the state Legislature were rolled back. Today, the party has just five seats in the state Senate and only 16 (out of 160) in the state House of Representatives.

Things only got worse for GOP when George W. Bush came to power in 2001. Besides a victory by Romney in the 2002 governor’s race (when he campaigned as a pro-choice moderate who would serve as a check on the Democrats’ Beacon Hill monopoly), Republicans have barely put up a fight. They let Kerry run unopposed in 2002 and mounted only token opposition to him in 2008 (and to Kennedy in 2006) and have routinely failed to contest congressional and state legislative contests, because what would the point be?

From 1994 through 2008, party label alone was enough to loft virtually any Democrat running for virtually any office in Massachusetts to victory, so mighty was the average voter’s distaste for the Republicans running Washington. But the demise of the GOP Congress in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama last year have changed that dynamic.

With Democrats running the show, Massachusetts voters are – for the first time since before the Gingrich revolution – willing to listen to (some) Republican candidates. And more to the point, they’re willing to consider voting for a Republican candidate as a way of expressing frustration with the ruling Democrats.

This, more than anything, explains why the Coakley-Brown race might be closer than expected. In the climate of, say, 2006, Coakley would be ahead by 30 points right now. Brown’s marketability and clever strategy – and Coakley’s bland, uninspiring campaign – would have mattered for nothing. In 2009, though, they do count for something.

Massachusetts is far from only state where the disappearance of the Gingrich-Bush shield looms large. The effect was evident in New Jersey two months ago, where Republican Chris Christie unseated Governor Jon Corzine. Corzine had more than his share of problems, but he would have been able to deflect them with the Gingrich-Bush shield. Too bad for him his seat wasn’t up in 2008.

In blue states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, Democrats were nearly invincible for 14 years because of the shield. In non-blue states, like Virginia, its protective effects only kicked in at the end of the Bush era, when Iraq and Katrina and runaway deficits and congressional corruption further soiled the GOP’s image. By 2006 and 2008, it was protecting Democrats in just about every corner of the country.

But, as the Coakley-Brown race seems to be proving, in 2010 it is gone – everywhere.

Steve Kornacki has written about politics for the New York Observer and Roll Call, and his work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Journal and other print and on-li more


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