A silver lining?

It’s hard to find a silver lining for the Massachusetts Republican party.  Not adopting the national GOP platform is certainly a start but when you miles behind, moving a few inches forward doesn’t make you competitive.  

The reality is that the state GOP failed miserably last week, everywhere.  They could have lost to Elizabeth Warren with a campaign that kept Scott Brown the most popular guy in the state but they gambled on her heritage and lost big while pulling down his favorables.

Blaming their losses on the Democratic machine is only one indication of how out of touch members of the party have become with their own state and their own failures, as I noted earlier this week in the HuffingtonPost.

So is there a silver lining?  Yes, a small one in the competitive north shore district.

Most people who voted in the 6th congressional district election didn’t vote for John Tierney who, of course, is heading back to the House. Such are the realities of the American electoral system.  You only need more votes than your closest challenger to gain political power.

Twice has John Tierney won a congressional race because third-party candidates siphoned off a significant number of votes.  There is, of course, no guarantee that votes that go to third parties will automatically go to the main parties if the third-party candidates are not on the ballot.  But the data in the 6th is striking.

In 1996, incumbent Republican Peter Torkildsen lost his reelection attempt to Tierney by 366 votes.  Third party candidates took over 10,000 votes.  Could some of those votes have closed the gap in Torkildsen’s favor?  Very likely as the third parties were predominantly on the right.

And just last week, Republican Richard Tisei lost his challenge to Tierney by about 3600 votes.  Libertarian Daniel Fishman took over 16,000.

It is not a stretch of the imagination to suggest a number of Fishman’s votes would have gone to Tisei for a very simple reason: Tisei is libertarian. He told the Boston Globe “I think the government should get out of your bedroom, off your back, and out of your wallet. That is, I think, the traditional northeast libertarian viewpoint.”

Of all the races in Massachusetts where Libertarian Party could have run to demonstrate strength, it is striking that the party chose to run against a libertarian in a very tight race.  In any other district, a challenger like Fishman could have peeled off 16,000 votes or more without throwing the race.  In the 9th district, Libertarian Daniel Botelho won over 32,000 votes.

Both Republicans and Libertarians should be outraged by Fishman’s entrance into the race.  He denied the opportunity for Tisei to work within the Republican coalition to try and bring libertarian values to Washington.  In the process he did a huge disservice to his fledgling party that now will be viewed more as a spoiler than an effective political organization.

Fishman could have easily run for any other office where a strong showing could have made a positive impact for his party.  It’s worth nothing that in his hometown of Beverly, Democratic state representative Jerry Parisella ran unopposed.  Fishman would not have defeated Parisella either but he could have worked to build a more effective local organization in the process.

He could have endorsed the libertarian in the race, rallied his followers to vote for Tisei and used the goodwill to run for local office in future.  There are any number of ways the Libertarian Party could make a contribution.  Running against libertarians in either party is not one of them.

It is rightly disconcerting to many third-party advocates that the electoral system at the national, state, and local levels do not work to their advantage and even very strong showings mean very little to those parties in terms of actual political power.

But it is equally frustrating to many voters that third parties which register so poorly in polls and surveys have outsized influence in a close election.

Without Daniel Fishman, the residents of the 6th District would very likely have a new member of Congress and a more accurate reflection of their preferences.

If there is a silver lining for the GOP, it’s that they ran a strong candidate in the 6th and kept it close.  That’s hardly comfort for a party that is again assessing its own relevance here but given the bleak outlook for future success, it’s something to hold onto.

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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