Last January, the voters of Massachusetts chose Republican Scott Brown to serve in the Senate, no small feat in that famously Democratic state. Can Massachusetts Republicans build on their rare victory this fall?
First things first: Republicans in Massachusetts are still fighting behind enemy lines. The state’s governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of the commonwealth, attorney general, and state auditor are all Democrats. Democrats have 35 seats in the state senate to the Republicans’ 5 and 144 seats in the state house to the Republicans’ 16.
In federal elections, Brown is the only Republican to win recently in Massachusetts. Democrats hold the other Senate seat and all ten House seats. Since 1928, Massachusetts has voted for a Republican presidential ticket four times: twice for Eisenhower-Nixon and twice for Reagan-Bush. It was the only state George McGovern won in 1972. In 2008, the state gave Barack Obama 62 percent of the vote and John McCain a paltry 36 percent.
Finally, in 2008, 37 percent of voters in Massachusetts were registered Democrats, while only 11.6 percent were registered Republicans. But that was all before Scott Brown, who won 6 of the state’s 10 congressional districts. That presented an opportunity for 6 Republican challengers in these midterm elections, 4 of whom are running competitively.
The Tenth Congressional District, which stretches from Quincy south of Boston down the bay coast through Plymouth County and Cape Cod, holds the best chance for the GOP to gain a seat. Obama won the Tenth with 55 percent, his worst performance in Massachusetts. Longtime representative Bill Delahunt ran virtually unopposed in 2008 and won in 2006 with 64 percent, but the Democratic congressman is not running for reelection. This was Brown’s best district, where he won 60 percent of the vote.
“We really feel like we’re in a position to win,” says Republican Jeff Perry, the state legislator from Sandwich running against Democratic district attorney Bill Keating. The coastal and suburban district has a more conservative profile than most in Massachusetts, with an older median age and a higher percentage of military veterans than the rest of the state. The Cook Political Report deems this race “Lean Democratic,” the best rating for Republicans in Massachusetts.
North of Boston in Essex and Middlesex counties is the Sixth District, typically a Democratic stronghold. Congressman John Tierney of Salem has won 70 percent of the vote in his last three elections, and Obama carried the district with 57 percent. Brown also won 57 percent of the vote, so Republicans could have a chance. Their challenger is Bill Hudak, a lawyer from Saugus who would normally be too conservative and too anti-Obama to win; Hudak gained notoriety in 2008 for having a sign in his yard depicting Obama as Osama bin Laden, a decision he says now he “absolutely” regrets.
In addition to Brown’s victory, what’s made this race competitive is a scandal involving Tierney, whose wife Patrice was indicted this month on charges she aided and abetted her fugitive gambler brother’s false tax filings. The scandal has given Hudak a powerful talking point about Washington corruption, and it may depress enough would-be Tierney voters to make the race close.
Just west in the Fifth District is Jon Golnik, a small businessman from Carlisle and a Republican running against Democrat Niki Tsongas. Tsongas, the widow of Democratic legend Paul Tsongas, ran unopposed in 2008 while Obama got 59 percent of the district and won by 20 points. But Tsongas won by only 6 points in her 2007 special election, meaning the Fifth, which includes parts of Essex, Middlesex, and Worcester counties and the city of Lowell, is not too far out of Republicans’ reach. Brown’s nearly 30,000 vote margin of victory (he won 56 percent of the vote) is a big boost for Golnik.
Golnik is perhaps the best candidate the GOP could hope for. Personable and engaging, he is visible in the district, a necessity for anyone challenging such a well-known name as Tsongas. Golnik is also perceptive of the electoral dynamics. “If this were a normal election cycle, I would say running in an open seat is a fantastic opportunity,” Golnik says. But “in this cycle, running against an incumbent is even better.” Of all the congressional races in Massachusetts, the Fifth most resembles the Brown-Coakley Senate match-up. Golnik has blue-collar appeal and the benefit of underdog status, and his campaign could sneak up on Tsongas in the final two weeks.
Finally, the gerrymandered Fourth District, which includes the liberal Boston suburb Brookline and stretches south to Fall River and New Bedford, holds the top prize for Republicans: 15-term Democratic congressman Barney Frank. The Fourth voted for Obama by a 28-point margin in 2008, and it has a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D +14, exceeded only by Boston’s urban districts. The scourge of conservatives, Frank has run unopposed in every midterm election since 1994, but Republican candidate Sean Bielat from Brookline has broken the pattern this year.
Brown carried the Fourth by his slimmest margin of victory, fewer than 2,000 votes. But a win is a win, and Brown’s success means Republicans here are fired up even in this unlikeliest of races. Bielat is an attractive candidate, a young Marine reservist who speaks calmly and articulately in contrast with Frank’s bluster. Even as Frank’s ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become well known, he remains popular within the district. A Bielat victory would be the out-of-left-field upset of the year.
The effect of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts may be largely psychological. The perennial problem of Republicans’ unpopularity in New England seems less daunting now, which is good news for candidates and potential donors alike. More important, it has provided the state’s conservatives hope after years in the wilderness. For Massachusetts voters, there is now a choice.
Michael Warren is a Collegiate Network fellow and an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.