scorecardresearch Skip to main content

John Walsh’s rhapsody in blue

Here is the bible, according to Democratic state party chairman John Walsh:

Democrats should run as Democrats, and embrace higher taxes as the price of delivering better government services to taxpayers.

Deval Patrick should run for president, but so far says he won’t.

Republican Charlie Baker should run for governor, because he’s as beatable in 2014 as he was in 2010, when he first ran against Patrick.

“If Republicans, please God, nominate Charlie Baker, we’re gonna win,” predicts Walsh.

To many, Walsh’s role in Bay State politics is inside baseball. Unsexy it may be, but it helps explain why, on election day, Massachusetts is relentlessly blue — except for one rare, embarrassing red blip.


That would be Scott Brown’s 2010 victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. Walsh, who says Democrats “screwed up” the 2010 special Senate election, atoned for that sin when Democratic star Elizabeth Warren beat Brown last November.

Now, after six years as state party chair, Walsh recently announced he’s leaving in October to take over Patrick’s political action committee. As Bay State Democrats mull their post-Patrick future, Walsh’s legacy is part of the analysis.

Call Walsh a master of grassroots, issue-based campaigning. Just don’t call him an “enforcer.” I did that a few months ago, and he was not pleased with the description.

The real enforcers, he said, are “Washington Democrats” who wanted to clear the field for Warren, so she wouldn’t face any primary challengers. According to Walsh, these unnamed Beltway bouncers tried to do the same for Ed Markey during the Bay State’s most recent special Senate election. But US Representative Stephen Lynch took on Markey anyway, explained Walsh, because “the governor and I both stood up and said competition was good.” In the end, the challenge from Lynch “forced Markey to run a credible campaign.”

As this summer’s CommonWealth magazine cover story recounts, Walsh didn’t invent the art of identifying true believers and getting them out to vote. Legendary politicians, like Tip O’Neill, understood that candidates not only need to ask for every vote — they need to drag every supporter to the polls on election day.


Michael Dukakis famously built a modern field operation when he first ran for governor. Walsh updated the model on multiple fronts, so it now includes old-fashioned door-knocking, targeted telephone calls, and direct mail as well as texting and Internet outreach.

A 21st-century field operation was the underpinning for Deval Patrick’s surprise victory in 2006 as the Bay State’s first African-American governor of Massachusetts and it served as a model for Barack Obama’s first presidential run. In 2010, the grassroots resurgence nurtured by Walsh helped Patrick win back the governor’s office, despite early polling that painted a picture of a vulnerable incumbent. Patrick’s field operation also helped every other Democrat on the statewide ballot, swamping Republicans who believed they had a chance to win.

Of course, earlier in 2010, Walsh watched a little-known Republican state senator humiliate Democrats and stun the political world by winning the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy.

He calls Brown’s victory over Coakley, “a terrible, terrible mistake.” It happened, he said, because Democrats looked at Brown, saw “a no-account state legislator who was basically there for the health insurance” and wrongly concluded “there was no way this guy could win.” By the time they realized Brown could triumph, it was too late.

Walsh vowed it wouldn’t happen again, and it hasn’t. Last November, Warren beat Brown; Representative John Tierney overcame negative headlines about his wife and brothers-in-law to beat Republican Richard Tisei; and to add icing to the Democratic cake, Camelot was resurrected with the election of Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. Then, in June, Markey beat Republican newcomer Gabriel Gomez.


Massachusetts Republicans, bruised and beaten, are trying to come up with a strategy for 2014. If it involves Baker, a former health company executive and policy wonk for two Republican governors, Walsh isn’t worried. Baker represents “every cockamamie fiscal shell game” inflicted upon Massachusetts voters, he said: “All of that is Charlie Baker’s legacy.”

The challenge for Democrats? They can use Walsh’s bible, but Patrick won’t lead them to the promised land. That will be up to someone like Steve Grossman, or maybe Coakley.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.