Tisei, Baker, and the Tea Party “Smear”

Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane published a column on Tuesday, Baker, Tisei face the Tea Party smear that was premier punditry — heroes (Baker and Tisei) and villains (the Democratic Party). Personality politics entertains but the column wasn’t very helpful in examining the import of the Tea Party charge in taking advantage of the political polarization that handicaps Republican candidates in Massachusetts, so let’s give it a go.

Keane suggests that the 2012 contest between Richard Tisei and Congressman John Tierney turned on the charge that Tisei was a veiled Tea Party devotee; that calling Tisei or gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker a Tea Partier is a smear; that our state deserves some competitive life out of the Republican Party; and that Baker and Tierney, being “exactly the kind of Republicans that might offer a healthy corrective to the Democratic hegemony” – are about to fall victim to the Democratic smear machine.

The columnist strongly suggests that Tisei was cruising toward victory in 2012 “Then, out came the big gun: the Tea Party. . . . The moderate was painted as a fanatic, and Tisei ultimately lost narrowly, 48 to 47 percent.”

It’s an interesting claim except there is little evidence to support it. How do we know it was the Tea Party tarring that did in Tisei? We don’t, but it fits the column. It may have been the presidential year turnout with a ticket lead by the popular President Obama, the state of the economy, the Democratic organizational advantage, the power of incumbency, etc.; or it may have been the Tea Party charge; we just don’t know.

Now is associating a Republican with the Tea Party a smear? Keane argues that Tisei has a moderate record and compelling biography – a gay Republican – he’d be a Democrat in a lot of other states, for heaven’s sake. But he isn’t a Democrat, he’s a Republican. Tisei wants to convince Sixth Congressional District voters that he is a moderate independent – vote the man, not the party — where have we heard that before? Democrats want to remind voters that if Tisei gets to Washington he will be herded into the GOP caucus where his first vote will be John Boehner for Speaker. The same John Boehner who kowtowed to his Tea Party minority and shut down the government last fall.

By focusing on the personalities of the individuals and not discussing the institutions of the parties, Keane’s column omits the most important aspects of the challenge facing Tisei. As political scientists Jeffrey M. Stonecash and Howard L. Reiter show in Counter Realignment: Political Change in the Northeastern United States, the GOP has devoted decades to abandoning its former moderate northeastern base in favor of the South and increasingly conservative white voters. That leaves Tisei with a huge problem but it is a problem caused by his own party, not the Democrats.

No question, the Tea Party has exacerbated the difficulty. The Democrats are supposed to forego reminding Massachusetts voters that Tisei represents a political party Bay Staters regard as extremist?

I agree with Keane, Massachusetts would be a better place with stronger two party competition. I’ve often called Massachusetts a sort-of democracy for its one party dominance. But again, we’re supposed to fault Democrats? Keane on the state’s problem: “Too many Democrats and not enough Republicans.” Really? How many is too many? Maybe the Democrats could be persuaded to shed some members to serve the public good.

The Tea Party charge is more unjust to Baker than to Tisei but perhaps more unlikely to stick. Baker isn’t trying to go to Washington to join a wildly irresponsible House Republican majority, but to stay here to govern in the tradition of Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. Over the last hundred years or so we’ve had roughly equal partisan representation in the corner office. But is Baker facing an electorate anything like the ones that approved Weld, Cellucci, and moderate Mitt Romney? Or is he confronting voters who are more polarized against his party?

That is a more important topic than whether the Democrats are being mean to Baker and Tisei.




About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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