Some parents get their children in line with scary warnings about monsters under the bed. Massachusetts Democrats tell voters similar tales about the Tea Party. The tactics work — as Richard Tisei and Charlie Baker may soon learn.
John Tierney, a US representative from the North Shore since 1997, barely won reelection in 2012. His challenger was Tisei, a longtime state legislator, gubernatorial candidate Baker’s running mate in 2010, and a man possessed with a novel pedigree: He’s an openly gay Republican. At the time, Tierney was still suffering through a scandal that had seen his wife sent to prison for 30 days (as well as house arrest for five months), and he was battling claims by his brother-in-law that he “knew everything that was going on” about the illegal doings. That combined with Tisei’s middle-of-the-road politics (the kind that in other states might make him a Democrat) seemed enough for victory. Then, out came the big gun: the Tea Party.
Tisei, Tierney argued, was a “Tea Party Republican,” pretending to be a centrist when he was really nothing more than a tool for the extremist elements of the national party. The moderate was painted as a fanatic, and Tisei ultimately lost narrowly, 48 to 47 percent.
Last week, Tisei announced he’ll mount a second challenge against Tierney. Not surprisingly, the Tea Party guns are out again. In the fall, as Tisei was mulling a run, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee warned, “Tea Party Turns to Richard Tisei to Continue Reckless Mission.” A Jan. 9 e-mail from Tierney’s camp begged for donations to “Help keep Massachusetts’ 6th district out of Tea Party control.” Two weeks later, after Tisei had jumped in the race, came this admonishment: “We can’t let the Tea Party buy this seat for Richard Tisei.”
Baker, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, will soon face similar claims. Baker is almost the anti-ideologue, a managerial whiz. He has a history of running complex organizations and making tough financial decisions, be it as secretary of administration and finance under Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci or as the CEO who turned around Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. But he has stepped right into the Tea Party trap. Hoping to avoid an internecine battle for lieutenant governor, he named Karyn Polito his running mate. As a state representative from Shrewsbury, Polito was not especially conservative, but of late she had seemed to veer rightward, culminating in her appearance at a fall 2013 Tea Party fundraiser. That was enough for the state’s Democrats, who claimed Baker was “trying to appease the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.”
All of this might not matter much except that Massachusetts has a problem: Too many Democrats and not enough Republicans.
Democrats utterly control the state’s politics. Our two US senators and nine House members are all Democrats. The governor is a Democrat. Out of 40 members, the state Senate has but four Republicans. The House , with 160 members, has just 28.
Good politics, runs the thinking, should be a competition. One party may be in the majority, but an effective opposition provides a necessary balance: It keeps the majority on its toes, it encourages creative thinking, and it’s a shield against corruption, sloth, and overreaching. But the GOP’s presence in the Bay State is so weak that it can do little. The solution, good-government types would argue, is to vote in more Republicans. And in truth, Tisei and Baker would seem exactly the kind of Republicans that might offer a healthy corrective to the Democratic hegemony.
Yet in the minds of many, Tea Party politics has become synonymous with a refusal to compromise and a willingness to take that to excess, such as a government shutdown. The state’s Democrats may well have too much influence, voters might conclude, but by any objective standard, Massachusetts’ politics are still more reasonable and effective than the dysfunction in Washington. Thus, if the Tea Party label sticks — and state Democrats will make a prodigious effort to see it does — Tisei and Baker lose. Even for adults, monsters under the bed still have the power to frighten.
Tom Keane can be reached at email@example.com.