GOP, RIP

Arguably at its lowest point ever, can the Massachusetts Republican Party rescue itself from its leaders?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 13, 2006

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Trivia question: if Kerry Healey loses her gubernatorial bid in November, who will be the top Republican elected official in Massachusetts, based on voter constituency, after Mitt Romney leaves in January?

The answer, barring any shocking upsets, is Frank Cousins, sheriff of Essex County.

This is what you’d call a serious leadership void, one that illustrates the depths to which the Massachusetts GOP has sunk — regardless of whether Healey manages to win the Corner Office.

Observers have noted a long history of gubernatorial abuse of the party. Bill Weld, elected in 1990, for example, did little party-building, and designated his heir when he lost interest in the job. And Paul Cellucci, who took over in 1997, turned the party into his personal political committee — before bolting to Canada in 2001 and leaving the state Republican apparatus in the hands of not-ready-for-prime-time Jane Swift. Then Romney swooped in, turned the party into his own presidential campaign PR firm, and on the way out, forced the party to accept Kerry Healey — perhaps the major-party candidate with the weakest résumé ever to run for governor here — as its leader.

As a result of this long-term gubernatorial mismanagement, Massachusetts now finds itself on the verge of becoming a one-party state.

Following this November’s elections, the 12-member delegation to Washington will once again be entirely made up of Democrats; as will every statewide elected office. At most, the GOP will have about a half-dozen state senators out of 40, and 20-odd of 160 state representatives. Republicans are a long-shot to win even one of the eight Governor’s Council seats. And on, and on.

“I think that our party, in political terms, is largely irrelevant,” says William Sawyer, GOP state committee member and former candidate for attorney general.

“If the probable outcome of this election occurs,” says James Rappaport, former state party chairman, referring to what he sees as a likely Healey defeat, “the Republican Party will have gone around full circle back to 1986.”

Comparisons with the party’s nadir in 1986 — when Michael Dukakis was governor and Democrats dominated the legislature and most elected offices — frequently arise in conversations with Massachusetts Republicans. In 1990, the party rebounded to win the governor’s office and 16 state-senate seats. But few in the GOP are optimistic of a similar recovery now.

Back then, they say, the party had a strong state-committee leader in Ray Shamie; conservative Democrats to work with in the legislature; a working citizen-petition process; and a cadre of rising stars in the party, including William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Andrew Card, Andrew Natsios, Ron Kaufman, Leon Lombardi, and Joe Malone.

More recently, however, the party seems to have operated almost exclusively for the glory of the current governor. This has left it out of touch, devoid of talent at all levels, and betting its last chips on a hand-picked gubernatorial candidate whom many believe was not the party’s finest option.

With so much riding on this uncertain upcoming election, the state GOP is faced with a tenuous future. “The best-case scenario is you hit bottom and then bounce back,” says Barbara Anderson, founder of Citizens for Limited Taxation & Government. “But other times you just go splat.”

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