he Massachusetts Republican party is an oxymoron. In many respects it exists only in name. At present there are only 23 GOP members of the state house of representatives and with two of the senior members retiring, if one more seat is lost, the minority party cannot even force roll-call votes. Their position in the state senate is no better. They have been unable to field any opposition, not even token opposition, to Senator John Kerry's reelection bid. They have in Dan Grabouskas, their candidate for treasurer, a man whom all editorialists and pundits agree is head and shoulders above his Democrat opponent, yet stands not a prayer of victory on Tuesday. Party functionaries refused to finance the signature drive of a prominent leader of the Massachusetts bar who was willing to run for attorney general, thus making it impossible for him to collect the 10,000 names necessary to secure a place on the ballot. There has been little leadership from the top either. The past two nominally Republican governors, Bill Weld and, to a lesser extent, Paul Cellucci, have done little to build a party apparatus or bench. It has seemed that whenever the party has found talented leaders such as Andy Card, Wayne Budd, Ralph Martin, or Andrew Natisios, they either decamp for Washington or enter the private sector to make their fortune.
The lay of the land, as well as the often Keystone-Kop actions of many party leaders, makes any statewide victory for a Republican a daunting challenge. Only 14 percent of Bay Staters claim loyalty to the GOP, whereas 38 percent call themselves Democrats. George W. Bush carried only 32 towns throughout the state.
Yet, if the trends of the polls taken over the past week have predictive value, the Republican nominee for governor, Mitt Romney, will be elected. Who said that campaigns don't matter?
While Romney's campaign has certainly not been error free, Democrat Shannon O'Brien's campaign seems to have been run by folks who see those Keystone Kops as role models.
The problems began from the outset. The Democratic convention was so poorly managed that the nomination for governor finally occurred after many delegates and the press had left in frustration. The Democrats had an issue which could have had some legs, the question as to whether Romney's absence from the state for a couple of years to run the Winter Olympics in Utah, and some comments by him that could lead some to believe that he was more psychologically tied there than to Massachusetts, but they managed to overplay their hand in a manner that not only neutralized the issue, but gave Romney an opening to get his biography in front of the electorate by both free and paid media very early in campaign. Their legal challenge of Romney's residency had the smell of a desperate attempt to derail a strong opponent using technicalities. Romney came across as a victim and O'Brien and the Democrat leaders as scared bullies. Even the Democrats' usual pressroom supporters chastised this effort as poor form.
During the summer, Romney and his handpicked lieutenant-governor candidate, Kerry Murphy Healy, toured the small villages and cities of the state, meeting with local leaders and establishing a strong field organization, a rarity for Massachusetts GOP candidates. Romney, who started to air commercials during his residency challenge, never went dark, whereas O'Brien's campaign husbanded its resources. This allowed Romney to define who he was and, to a surprisingly large degree, the issue profile of the race.
Although one prominent Democrat operative publicly chastised her party for allowing Romney to control the summer, O'Brien staffers remained confident that O'Brien's gender, "moderate" stands on fiscal issues, natural tendency of Massachusetts voters to vote Democrat and their forthcoming attacks on Romney's business deals would be more than enough to carry the day. Unfortunately for them, each of these factors seemed to be weak tea.
While initial polls showed a gender gap of approaching 20 points among women (Why is it that the gaps among male voters isn't also reported as a gender gap, too?), as the candidates became three dimensional rather than cartoon stereotypes, women were less willing to vote for another women merely because of a shared biology. Romney's discussion of education as his top priority and his mother's history of being a pro-choice advocate in the 1960s made O'Brien's attempted portrait of him as an enemy of women untenable. Indeed, her pathetic attempt following the final debate to make his use of the word "unbecoming" to be a sexist remark was so silly that it has backfired. In comes as no surprise that Romney has closed the gender gap. The latest Boston Globe poll showed an eight-point margin among women, and an almost identical number in the opposite direction among men.
While O'Brien's positions on fiscal issues is nowhere as Left-leaning as some of her primary opponents, such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, there would be no way that O'Brien could match Romney's desire to trim the state government's sails. In addition, by discussing this issue, O'Brien allowed Romney to raise the specter of a complete takeover of the statehouse by the Democrats and to make historical connections with the fiscal crisis Massachusetts faced when the last Democrat, Michael Dukakis, was governor. Romney has been able to pound away recently on this theme, calling a Democrat governor, speaker of the house, and senate president the "Gang of Three." This fear of a monopoly of power by one party has also offset many independent voters' natural inclination to pull the Democrat lever.
Finally, the O'Brien camp felt that Romney's business dealings as a venture capitalist would be their "ace in the hole." Throughout discussions over the course of the campaign, Democrats couldn't wait to use the same commercials and stories about out-of-work employees of companies which Romney's firm controlled that Senator Ted Kennedy used in his race against Romney six years ago. The problem with the strategy is that the voters had already heard of this issue six years ago. They had processed it and unless new information could be brought to bear, it would have little efficacy.
The O'Brien camp also forgot something when they raised Romney's venture-capitalist background. O'Brien's running mate, Chris Gabrieli, also made his fortune as a venture capitalist. After a bit of digging, the Romney campaign discovered that Gabrieli's company was an active, involved, investor in Bain Capital, Romney's old firm. If Mitt was guilty of any sin, so too would be O'Brien's partner. These attacks on Romney also opened the door for his campaign to raise the issue of O'Brien's lobbyist husband, R. Emmet Hayes, one of whose clients was Enron. While there was no evidence that Hayes did anything untoward for the company, the Romney camp tried to make "Enron Emmet" at least a distraction for the O'Brien campaign. More troubling was the question of O'Brien's decisions as state treasurer that were financially beneficial to Hayes's other clients.
In the end, as it frequently does, the race came down to the two candidates. As the polls tightened, O'Brien's often-prickly demeanor began to become more noticeable to the voters. In the last debate with Romney, she frequently baited, interrupted, and mocked her opponent, prompting Romney's aforementioned "unbecoming" comment. The polls of those who saw that debate demonstrate that voters were turned off to her manner. Romney's strong, yet polite manner in the face of her bullying, made him appear more gubernatorial.
Of course, the campaign is far from over. While Romney's efforts during the summer to create a field operation from scratch will yield benefits, the Democrats have been masters at getting out their vote. With full labor support, they will have more than adequate resources to get all of their voters to the polls.
But it probably will not be enough. O'Brien's campaign's mistakes and the Romney camp's ability to exploit her miscues should be enough to put Romney in the corner office.
If he is successful, the next question for Romney should be, are you willing to rebuild the Massachusetts Republican party or are you just marking time until national office, say, in 2008, calls?
Jim Nuzzo is a Massachusetts-based Republican political analyst.