Amid soul-searching over their Election Day losses, Massachusetts Republicans face an immediate internecine battle over the direction of their party as they consider whether to adopt the conservative agenda that their national party embraced at the convention.
Massachusetts Republicans are already agonizing over the party’s future, having watched the gains of recent years slip away last Tuesday, when presidential nominee Mitt Romney, prized US Senator Scott Brown, and a promising candidate for Congress, Richard R. Tisei, all went down to defeat. Four of the seats Republicans had claimed in the Legislature in 2010 were reclaimed by Democrats.
“I feel humbled,” said Jared Valanzola, chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Rockland. “What we had figured was, we did very well two years ago, we can build on it.”
Instead, their losses triggered anger and frustration and deepened the longstanding divide between the party’s moderate establishment and its more conservative faction. Conservatives have tried unsuccessfully to nudge the party to the right to present a more distinct alternative to the state’s dominant Democratic Party. Moderates however, say that approach doesn’t appeal in progressive Massachusetts and that the voters made their voices heard loud and clear last week.
“Our message is not appealing to people. It’s not resonating,” said Jennifer Nassour, past chairwoman of the Massachusetts GOP. “What I saw happening in Massachusetts was not a reflection on Scott or Richard [Tisei],” she added, calling it a reflection on Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Republicans from Missouri and Indiana, respectively, whose rhetoric on rape and pregnancy shocked and alienated women this election season.
Nassour has started a group called Conservative Women for a Better Future to groom female candidates more concerned with fiscal responsibility.
Others argue that a socially conservative agenda cannot possibly be blamed for turning off voters here; most of Massachusetts’ unsuccessful Republicans did not run as conservatives. Conservatives in the Massachusetts Republican Party would like to move in the opposite direction — embracing more stringent conservatism and focusing on social issues — to better distinguish their candidates from Democrats.
In recent months, even as the moderate Brown and Tisei rose to prominence, these conservatives have become more prominent in the Massachusetts party, as well.
“Trying to out-Democrat the Democrats is no way to define and strengthen Massachusetts Republicanism,” wrote Dave Kopacz, president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, which calls itself the Republican wing of the Republican Party.
The Assembly and other Republican activists are calling for the resignation of Robert A. Maginn Jr., state party chairman, and other party leaders and for a retrenchment on conservative issues. And they have an opportunity before them on Tuesday night, when state committee members are scheduled to consider adopting the national party’s platform — a vote the party had postponed from September until after the election. The platform, which calls for a ban on abortion with no exceptions in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother, was viewed as so extreme that it caused controversy nationally and both Brown and Tisei separately spoke out against it. Maginn did not return a call for comment.
The pending vote by the 80-member state committee has socially moderate Republicans worried that their party could move further away from voters turned off by a social agenda.
“What does this debate on Tuesday get us? We’re going to look like even more of a whack-job party, adopting a platform that was dismissed by the voters — rejected soundly,” said Jason Kauppi, a former communications consultant for the Massachusetts Republican Party. “It says that it has yet to learn any lessons from this last election cycle — what the party is and what we stand for.”
Jane Swift, Massachusetts’ former acting governor, said in an interview on Friday, “I hope they roundly reject it. We need a brand of Republicanism in Massachusetts that allows us to elect great candidates who actually can lead the way for the national party.”
On Friday, Swift also penned a column for WBUR.org’s ideas and opinion page Cognoscenti calling the national party “out of touch” and “offensive” to millions of women.
“In Massachusetts, we’ve always had a big tent on social issues, recognizing it was the right place to be,” Swift told the Globe. “We’ve always had a strong representation of women’s voices and frankly, moderate men like Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, who could win elections and lead our party. I think there is more pragmatism on the state level so I’m hoping that, just as Bill Weld has moved back to Massachusetts, hopefully so will his brand of Republicanism.”
Elizabeth Childs, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary in the Fourth Congressional District, called last week’s elections a “wakeup call” for the party.
“I think our party has to embrace that the American electorate is sending us a signal, that we want you to recognize that more of us think more in the middle,” Childs said.
But Medford state committeewoman Patricia B. Doherty, who championed the platform on the state level, said Republicans could not have presented a bigger tent in their campaigns this year.
“I mean, hello? Richard Tisei? Scott Brown? You couldn’t call them running on a socially conservative ticket,” Doherty said. “And they didn’t win. I’m not in the habit of pointing to failures and saying, ‘Let’s do it again.’ ”
And Valanzola, who wants a new chairman, also supports the national platform, saying Republicans in Massachusetts need to set themselves apart from the majority party.
“If people are given the choice between a Democrat and a faux Democrat, they’re going to vote for the Democrat,” he said. “We need to really make sure that we are a clear opposing voice.”
Party spokesman Tim Buckley said he could not speak to the platform, which will be considered by members. But he pointed to the efforts made to get out the vote in a state where Republicans are badly outnumbered. The party opened 35 field offices around the state to help Brown and legislative candidates.
“We quadrupled the investment in the ground game. Progress was made there but it clearly wasn’t enough and we realized all along that we were at a disadvantage on the ground,” Buckley said. “The enthusiasm was there. The resources were improved as compared to 2010. But we clearly have more work to do in that area.”