When Whittaker Chambers broke with the Communist Party, he declared that he knew he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.” Compared with today’s Massachusetts GOP, Chambers was a cockeyed optimist.
Last week’s election was a misery for Bay State Republicans. US Senator Scott Brown lost his “people’s seat” to Elizabeth Warren. Scandal-tainted incumbent John Tierney survived Richard Tisei’s challenge in the 6th Congressional District. And the tiny Republican band on Beacon Hill grew tinier: Three GOP state representatives were ousted, giving Democrats a 130-30 advantage in the House and 36 of the Senate’s 40 seats.
For Massachusetts Republicans, of course, getting routed in elections is practically a way of life. When Polly Logan, 77, a longtime state party leader, was bound and gagged during an armed robbery at her home in 2002, she said she survived the long wait for help by trying to recall “all the state campaigns I was in, and how we lost most of them.’’
But after last week’s wipeout, Republicans weren’t exactly brimming over with that what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger spirit.
“The MassGOP . . . is dead” a post at Red Mass Group, a popular Republican blog, was titled Wednesday morning. Activist Ed Lyon’s prognosis was grim: “It is no longer possible for a Republican to win congressional or statewide office,” he wrote. The GOP is “no longer viable statewide.”
There was fatalism aplenty. “If you’re a Republican, you can have the cure for cancer in one hand, a balanced budget in the other, and free tuition in your back pocket,” radio talk host Michael Graham, a veteran GOP consultant, told me. “And they’d still vote against you.” A former aide to governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, asked bleakly: “What’s the point of being a Republican if you live here?”
That’s exactly the right question.
What is the point of being a Republican in Massachusetts? Is the goal is just to dislodge the party in power? To try to win positions now held by Democrats? There have always been partisans, both Republican and Democrat, for whom politics is chiefly a kind of sport, with tribal loyalties and campaign playbooks and a prize to be won through shrewd tactics and subtle strategy.
Hence the endlessly-recycled nattering about the damaged Republican “brand” in Massachusetts, and how the GOP is doomed to keep losing until it rids itself of positions that are incompatible with the Bay State’s political culture. Invariably this comes down to a call for Republican candidates who are liberal on social issues, moderately conservative on fiscal issues, and generally eager to distance themselves from the national Republican Party. What the local GOP needs, one senior party official told me last week, are “more Weld Republicans.”
Maybe what it really needs are more “Fattman Republicans.”
Ryan Fattman is a young state representative from Sutton, first elected to the Legislature two years ago and reelected last week with 70 percent of the vote despite a strong Democratic challenge. Talk to Fattman about Republican prospects in Massachusetts, and he doesn’t bend your ear with laments about a toxic “brand” or how the national GOP platform is too extreme. He talks instead about liberty, limited government, and low taxes. About how the “R” after his name stands for “reform.” About how Massachusetts is one of the most difficult states to do business in, thanks to a Democratic monopoly that is “intrusive and expensive.”
Instead of trying to recruit big names to run for office, Fattman says, the state GOP should be focused on the grass roots. The party needs candidates with close ties to their communities and the patience to learn the political ropes. But above all it needs candidates who can explain, with enthusiasm and clarity, what Republicans are offering: a Massachusetts “that empowers its citizens with autonomy and initiative,” one that defends their “freedom to decide, to build, to earn.”
What’s wrong with Bay State Republicans is that too many of them just want to be on the winning side. Fattman knows why he wants to win and why he wants to do so with an “R” after his name.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.