Massachusetts Caucuses Gone Wild

Kerry Healy didn’t make it. Neither did Brad Jones. Apparently out organized and under enthused, the official “Mitt” delegate slates were defeated all across the Commonwealth on Saturday. A majority of the 27 delegates that Massachusetts Republicans chose on Saturday to send to the Tampa Bay convention will be non Mitt supporters. What in the name of Leverett Saltonstall is going on here?  Get Bob Maginn on the phone! Mitt must be furious! What a disaster and a huge embarrassment! Is that Ron Kaufmann crying in the corner?

Methinks the damage is overstated.
To state the obvious, it’s not a great day when a favorite son is poised to capture the presidential nomination of his party and his own former lieutenant governor and a top booster in the legislature cannot get elected as GOP delegates. And the state chair is handpicked. And he’ll run against a Democratic incumbent whose campaign organization is state of the art and well oiled. Okay, not great.

But not that bad either, for a few reasons.

First, all 27 delegates chosen at the caucuses are pledged to Romney through the first ballot. Since there will not be a second ballot, there will not be any embarrassing moments in Tampa Bay. No rogue votes, no speeches by disgruntled GOPers from his home state wishing someone else were atop the ticket. No, the delegates elected Saturday will remain faceless and nameless to the vast majority of those watching the GOP Convention this summer.

Second, it’s hard for me to believe the events on Saturday are a rebuke to Mitt as Republican leader.  Mitt Romney is not the cause of the mediocrity that was the state GOP for much of its contemporary history. Romney extended GOP control over the executive branch at a time when their lock on the office under Acting Governor Jane Swift seemed doubtful. He also made a greater attempt than any other GOP leader to increase the party’s numbers in the legislature. This effort was a total failure but the blame is only partly Romney’s: he inherited a party with no farm team. Zilch. Nada. And the only election in which he could attempt to build the party was the worst possible time in recent memory: a presidential election when a home state Democrat was that party’s nominee. Romney famously moved on and moved out to the presidential fields of Iowa and New Hampshire. The GOP was not left to flounder: it had been floundering for many, many years.

Third, Romney is not going to be harmed nationally by failing to hold his home state so the affairs at this Saturday’s caucus will have no impact on Romney’s ability to win the presidency. I learned from a great panel of experts at this past weekend’s New England Political Science Association meeting in Portsmouth that no challenger has won the presidency without winning his home state. Bad news for Romney.  Of course, winning your home state doesn’t guarantee success: Walter Mondale won Minnesota in 1984. That and the District of Columbia got him a cup of coffee the day after the election.

But Romney is not your typical home state pol. Massachusetts is his home and it’s where he launched his political career but his political roots are not that deep here. He’s wholly unlike Ted Kennedy or Michael Dukakis in that regard. He is not a Massachusetts man and no one expects him to win this state. Thus it is only mildly embarrassing to this former Governor to lose his home state. He’ll be happy to have Massachusetts, of course, but he needs Ohio. Chris Cillizza points out in the Washington Post that Romney has little room for electoral error. Still, he can win in 2012 without Massachusetts.

So if the results on Saturday aren’t likely register in terms of national politics, do they register here? I think they can. The energy displayed on Saturday can be a harbinger if channeled realistically. The GOP will not find it easy to make inroads this year. For them 2012 is a holding pattern: help Romney to win enough votes to keep the final tally closer than it might otherwise be (no GOP nominee has won more than 40% of the vote in recent years), keep their numbers in the Legislature relatively static and hold onto Brown’s seat, perhaps picking up Tierney’s congressional seat. Any one would be significant; all four would represent a major coup for the Massachusetts GOP and set them up nicely for gains in 2014 if they put together a credible team.

The big challenge for the GOP here is to find room in the party for establishment (and long time and committed Republicans) like Kerry Healy and the newcomers. RedMassGroup’s Rob Eno believes the GOP establishment here “should embrace the energy of these ‘new’ people and not turn them away. This wing of the party, if treated with respect, forms a dedicated grassroots army.” I think he’s right but I also think that history is replete with examples of Massachusetts Republicans finding ways to line up and shoot at each other without ever harming the hair on the head of the state’s overwhelming Democratic majority.  Intense intra-party competition is rarely amicable.  The ongoing competition between establishment types and a newly empowered grassroots can easily result in a serious rift and bloodletting that keeps the GOP in a permanent and meaningless minority in the state house, shuts them out of the congressional delegation, and keeps them hoping for a savior candidate for Governor.

The caucuses on Saturday demonstrate what happens with a faction is well organized and on message.  Should the state GOP learn and apply this lesson to their races in 2012 and 2014, we may just get a truly competitive two party system here.  But either way, little that was done over the weekend will impact the Romney campaign moving forward.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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