By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 13, 2006

The ’04 debacle
The state GOP has been losing the power struggle for years, but its crushing blow came in the disastrous 2004 election. Romney and state GOP chairman Darrell Crate, who works for Kerry Healey’s husband Sean Healey at Affiliated Managers Group, drafted 106 legislative candidates, dubbed “Team Reform,” and raised money for their efforts. The result: a net loss of three seats. State Republicans admit the failure was disheartening.

The official party line on the rout is that it was a matter of bad timing: John Kerry’s presidential candidacy brought forth an unbeatable surge of Democratic voters. Plus, in 2004 “you didn’t have the red-hot ‘throw-the-bums-out’ attitude as in 1990,” when “Dukakis fatigue” gripped the state, says John Moffitt, chief of staff under Bill Weld.

Yet “it would be a mistake to think of it as a recent problem; the Republican Party of Massachusetts has been on life support for 50 years,” says former Weld aide Martin Linsky. “The Republicans have only been able to win some statewide offices because of a combination of very strong candidates, weak Democratic candidates, and an understandable desire of the electorate to keep two-party government alive on Beacon Hill.”

Nonetheless, some members of the party believe the 2004 losses were not inevitable. They place the blame squarely on party leaders.

“They had a bad strategy [in 2004]; they tried to nationalize the races instead of localizing them,” says one prominent party activist.

“We have a state party chairman who is very smart, but he’s never been in a campaign,” says Polly Logan, long-time Republican state committee member.

Whatever the reason for the defeat, it aggravated the split between party leaders who were mostly hand-picked by Romney and old-timers who believe they have been ignored in their area of expertise: Massachusetts politics.

Since the November ’04 election, the state Republican committee has been unable to gain solid footing, plowing through four executive directors in just two years (27-year-old Brian Dodge took the job this summer just four months before the general election). And there have been other insider shake-ups. At the start of 2006, Crate surprised many by hiring Robert Willington, manager of the anti-gay-marriage Vote on Marriage Campaign, to be the new political director. In a contentious 2005 vote for vice-chair, the committee picked Lawrence Novak over Romney’s candidate, Jeanne Kangas; Novak, however, was subsequently indicted for money-laundering, so Kangas ultimately got the job.

Logan and others fear that the current state-committee team running the ’06 strategy is making the same mistakes as in ’04; she points to $10,000 the state committee spent in July on parking in Boston as one sign of mismanagement.

“The party infrastructure has proven their ineptitude over the past three years,” Rappaport says.

As a result, some state Republicans are looking with envy at Deval Patrick’s accomplishments this year and wondering why their party has not been able to build a similar grassroots movement.

“The Republican Party needs to spend more time developing local city and town elections first,” says Michael J. Sullivan, Mayor of Lawrence. Sullivan would like to see a new party chair with local hands-on party-building experience — regardless of whether Healey wins or loses. “We need to step back and build up the grassroots.”

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