Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local.” But for Republicans in New England, the opposite may now be true.
On Nov. 6, Republican candidates running for federal office lost every single race in every single New England state: 21 for Congress, five for Senate, and one for president. Outside of New England, no state experienced such a clean sweep. Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine are the only Republicans left standing — but they weren’t up for reelection this year.
It’s well known that New England is solidly blue, especially in the southern tier where there is an above-average share of urban and union voters, so it should come as no surprise that Democrats win most of the time. But for Republicans to be completely shut out goes beyond party loyalty or the electorate’s predictable tilt to the left. It would be one thing if the GOP put up candidates who were way to the right of “mainstream” voters, but many of the Republican candidates in this election cycle were self-described moderates, some of whom supported such liberal touchstones as abortion rights and gay marriage.
More important than ideological differences between the candidates was the burden GOP contenders carried by virtue of being affiliated with the national Republican Party. Even when individual candidates explicitly and repeatedly separated themselves from many of their Republican counterparts around the country, they were effectively tarred by their opponents as stalking horses for the leaders and factions that have become the GOP’s brand, which is deeply unpopular in this corner of the country.
At its core, the problem is not that Republicans are conservatives; after all, New England has elected its share over the years. The issue is that the Republicans who increasingly define the party are not perceived as being serious about addressing the country’s fundamental problems. Here’s a bill of particulars:
Republicans on Capitol Hill have too often taken an all-or-nothing approach to governing: Either they get what they want, or they put sand in the gears. The unprecedented number of filibusters in the Senate is the most obvious example. Equally problematic is the pattern in the House of adopting bills on party-line votes that don’t stand a chance of being enacted into law. Democratic hands are hardly clean, but that’s no excuse.
Republicans used to be the party of ideas; seeking out and developing innovative, market-based approaches to solving problems. More recently, the party has walked away from such policies when they’ve been proposed by Democrats. The most notable examples are emissions trading and the individual health insurance mandate. The Democratic versions of these ideas are not always faithful to the Republican originals, but they deserve to be taken seriously.
Republican leaders have mostly kept silent while a rising tide of know-nothingism has swept through their ranks. Candidates who are clearly unqualified have been embraced and even promoted by the party apparatus and its aligned media outlets. “Birthers” and other conspiracy theorists have been only mildly rebuked, often with an implicit nod and wink that they are serving a useful partisan purpose.
Notwithstanding real differences on hot-button issues like abortion, gay marriage, and illegal immigration, too many voices of the Republican Party and conservative talk radio have adopted a harsh tone that is disrespectful, at best.
Even after more than 10 years of costly and indecisive wars, Republican foreign policy remains in the thrall of neo-conservatives, who see threats to our vital interests under every rock and who press for unilateral military action as a preferred, rather than final option.
If New England Republicans are going to revive their prospects in federal campaigns, they need to create some space between themselves and the national GOP, not just as individual candidates, but as state parties. As a first step, Republican parties in New England should adopt platforms addressing national policy, making clear distinctions with the platform adopted this summer in Tampa and framing their own brand of Yankee conservatism. In addition, New England candidates running for federal office under the GOP banner should pledge to caucus together in Washington, in order to help build a small, but organized counterweight to the dominant factions in the national party.
Improving the party’s image alone won’t ensure victories. Stepping up and modernizing its electoral “ground game” is clearly a priority. But, together, these actions might offer at least some hope of restoring the Republican Party in New England as a viable contender in federal races, and might even establish a basis for reforming the national GOP itself.
James A. Peyser is a managing partner at NewSchools Venture Fund and a former chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education under three Republican administrations.