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Mass. GOP still looking for silver lining



Mass. GOP still looking for silver lining

By STEVE LeBLANC, The Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006

BOSTON - The old joke about Massachusetts Republicans holding caucuses in one of the Statehouse's vintage wooden phone booths is cutting a little too close to the bone these days.

After a demoralizing Election Day during which the GOP not only lost the governor’s office to Democrat Deval Patrick, but saw its ranks in the Massachusetts House and Senate dwindle ever closer to the vanishing point, Republicans are facing some of their bleakest days in a generation.

Not only was a Democrat elected governor for the first time in 16 years, but the party holds every other statewide seat and every congressional office.

Republican leaders framed the loss as an opportunity to rebuild the party of Calvin Coolidge, Henry Cabot Lodge and Leverett Saltonstall from the ground up.

That has some in the party asking themselves an acutely existential political question: What does it mean to be a Republican in the bluest of blue states, home of Ted Kennedy, gay marriage and Harvard University?

For generations the answer to that question was straightforward. Massachusetts Republicans fell into the model of other New England Republicans, priding themselves on Yankee thrift, small government, and generally moderate positions on social issues.

It was a model more recent Republican governors like William Weld and Paul Cellucci mirrored as they mixed fiscal conservatism with a moderate social stands.

But Gov. Mitt Romney’s turn to the right on everything from gay marriage to abortion, coupled with the failure of his successor, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, on Election Day, has some Republicans looking for an extreme image makeover.

For longtime Republican operatives like Charley Manning, the Massachusetts GOP has to look back to its most recent glory days for inspiration – the 1990 election when Weld swept into office and Republicans gained enough seats in the Massachusetts Senate to uphold his vetoes.

It wasn’t just Weld, Manning said, pointing to other fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican governors in the Northeast, including former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, New York Gov. George Pataki, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri.

“What works in Florida or Kansas or Wyoming for the Republican Party won’t work for the Republican Party in the Northeast,” he said. “It’s important for Republicans to figure out what voters in this whole region are looking for and find a way to appeal to that.”

The election shows just how much ground Massachusetts Republican have to win back.

Massachusetts has the most Democratic Legislature in the country, with the party holding 88 percent of seats, according to Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii is second with 83 percent Democrats.

At the bottom of the list is Idaho with just 25 percent Democrats. That means that the Massachusetts Legislature is also the most heavily dominated by a single party – Dems or GOP – of any in the country.

When things are that dismal, Republicans in the House and Senate agree, there’s only one direction left: Up.

Sen. Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, takes over as the new GOP leader in the Senate, where Republicans saw their numbers shrink from six to five. He said he was embarrassed on Election Day when he walked into his voting booth and saw that the Green-Rainbow Party had fielded more candidates for statewide office than the GOP.

To make matters worse, another 35,000 Republicans have bolted the party, which now makes up less than 13 percent of the statewide electorate.

As bad as Election Day was for Republicans, there was something liberating in the loss, Tisei suggested.

“For the last 16 years the Republican Party has been pretty much centered on the governor. It starts and ends in the governor’s office. It’s been a top-down approach,” he said. “We also have to start looking at building the party from the bottom up.”

That means scouring local school committees and boards of selectman for a new roster of Republican candidates to groom.

Tisei’s leadership counterpart in the House, Brad Jones, R-North Reading, said that as the sole voice of opposition, Republicans are best able to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire.

But Jones also sounded a bipartisan note after Patrick met recently with the two Republican leaders.

“We were all elected to represent people whose differences are minor compared to the things they share in common,” he said.

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