The former Senator came to a friendly part of the state on Thursday night. In his reelection attempt, Brown did very well on Cape Cod and Cranberry Country in general. We here like our sand soft, our quahogs stuffed, our gin cold, and our politics competitive.
In Mashpee he took on critics within the party who, with a good deal of regularity, go after their own nominees as lacking in conservative credentials. Brown asked “What the heck is a real Republican? Can you tell me that? Is there a litmus test? Did I miss that class?”
Brown’s rhetorical questions lay bare an important truth about American parties.
Among the peculiar features of the American party system is the lack of membership requirements. You do not need to attend any meetings, give any money, support your party nominee, or run as a delegate in order to be a member of a party.
If you wake up in the morning feeling a bit conservative, well you can be a member of the Republican party. Feeling somewhat progressive today? Welcome to the Democrats.
The lack of any kind of membership requirements allows our parties to be defined by its public policy commitments, patronage, or, increasingly over time, ideology. This reality allows those to view themselves as good Republicans or good Democrats to decry other members of the party whom they view as insufficiently committed to the ideological direction of the party.
That doesn’t mean those who hurl the RINO label are wrong. Very often these are the foot soldiers for a party, the people who staff phone banks, canvass in rotten weather, and attend local meetings. These folks don’t take kindly to the notion that they should give a lot of sweat equity to a party that turns around and nominates a candidate with whom they disagree on some pretty significant issues.
It’s a challenge both parties face but given their small numbers here, it’s particularly harmful to Republicans who can’t hope to be a viable alternative to Democrats if they continue to waste their time arguing about who is and who is not a real Republican. My colleague Professor Duquette notes just today another reason why the GOP remains a distinct minority party here. Add that to the list.
They have pockets of strength in this state upon which they can build, and they have Brown in no small measure to thank for that. As he accurately noted in his address yesterday, Romney lost the state by 23 points while he lost by 8. That’s a significant number of voters who were quite content to distinguish between the national ticket and the state ticket. It’s an instance where candidates do matter and can help shape the contours of a race.
But Massachusetts Republicans are particularly good at circling the firing squad. Gabriel Gomez was only the latest to feel the slings and arrows of his own party. While it’s not likely that a more energetic party behind him could have helped Gomez win, it might have narrowed Markey’s victory just a bit and continued to shine a spotlight on those areas of the state the GOP needs to continue to organize.