Massachusetts Republicans Missing in Action in U.S. Senate Race

Doesn’t any qualified state Republican want John Kerry’s U.S. Senate seat? Washington’s intense polarization and the dwindling Northeast GOP are keeping the big names away, says John Avlon.

02.07.13 9:45 AM ET

So this is sad. The once proud Massachusetts Republican Party can’t seem to find a credible candidate to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in a June special election.

It was just three years ago, after Ted Kennedy’s death, that state Sen. Scott Brown stunned the political world by beating the much-favored Attorney General Martha Coakley. And while Brown lost his seat to Elizabeth Warren in the Obama surge of 2012, with Mitt Romney losing his home state and town by historic margins, the Bay State Republican Party has a record of putting up a respectable fight against Massachusetts Democrats.

After Bill Weld was elected governor in 1990, the GOP began a 16-year run on the top executive office, with Weld being succeeded by Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift. It took Romney just one term to bury the franchise by 2006.

Nonetheless, Massachusetts should be within the realm of possibility for Republicans. Contrary to liberal stereotypes, registered independents outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans in the state. Ronald Reagan won it twice. And the state GOP has produced national figures ranging from Calvin Coolidge to Henry Cabot Lodge to Ed Brooke, the first African-American ever popularly elected to the Senate.

But now, suddenly, crickets. Even the glittering prize of a Senate seat, with the increased odds that come from a special election, seems unappealing.

The obvious candidates with high statewide name ID have all declined the honor. Brown surprised many by bowing out, presumably with an eye on the governor’s mansion in two years’ time. Weld, who ran an epic Senate race against John Kerry in 1996, also said “no, gracias.” Romney’s lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, wasn’t interested, and neither was Romney’s son Tagg. Richard Tisei, the openly gay centrist state legislator who narrowly lost a congressional race this fall, also declined to run statewide this time. A similar refrain was heard from the well-liked 2010 gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker. Cellucci, the popular former governor and onetime ambassador to Canada, is sadly out of contention due to a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Swift, a former lieutenant governor who served as a 30-something governor for an eventful year and a half, is moving her family to Vermont for work, but she offered her take on why Republicans are finding it hard to have recruits.

“I think moderate GOPers look at Olympia Snowe and others, and think it is a lose-lose proposition to go to D.C.,” Swift wrote in an email. “It’s hard to win (and even if you win you will constantly draw a very tough race), and if you win, you can’t get much done in this climate. It is for sure a Catch-22, but who wants to be the person beating their head against the wall? At least as a governor you can get stuff done—even as a Republican in a blue state.”

According to Swift, the Senate’s polarization diminishes the prize, because it makes getting anything done more difficult, especially for a centrist.

The added uphill climb makes the decision to run tougher for Republicans, says Cellucci. “These are intensely personal family decisions—you’ve got to put your life on hold for six months, seeking something that’s very hard to achieve as a Republican in Massachusetts—so these are never easy decisions.”

Nonetheless, Cellucci adds, “I think the moderate Massachusetts Republican mold of candidate is still very much in play.” He defines the Massachusetts GOP tradition as “moderate on social issues, tough on fiscal issues, taxes, and crime—and always willing to work with people in both parties to get things done. We saw that with Weld, me, Swift, and Mitt Romney, with the health-care law he signed in Massachusetts.”

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Cellucci is quick to acknowledge that Romney’s “tacking so far to the right in the primaries was a tactic that backfired. But in the last month of the campaign he tacked back to the center, talking about how he’d worked with Democrats as well as Republicans in Massachusetts.”

But Cellucci isn’t willing to give up Republican hopes this cycle, pointing to two candidates who seem eager to take a run at the brass ring: state Rep. Dan Winslow and Gabriel Gomez, a Navy SEAL turned local businessman.

Winslow is better-known in party circles, having served as a district-court judge and chief legal counsel for Gov. Romney. Gomez has never held elective office, but he is stirring speculation with his biography—he’s the son of Colombian immigrants who was previously a Navy pilot turned Navy SEAL. For a national party with a need for outreach to the Hispanic community and an understandable drive toward military heroes and entrepreneurs, Gomez could be a powerful draw against Winslow, the engaging and more established policy wonk.

To be fair, the problems afflicting the Massachusetts GOP are far from unique. Over the past 15 years, Northeast Republicans have gone from dominant to endangered species. They’re a victim of the rightward lurch of the national GOP, which alienated independent voters, particularly in the Northeast.

Another of the wages of polarization is the pathetic number of congressional seats that are going functionally uncontested around the country—a dynamic compounded by the rigged system of redistricting. But an open Senate seat is a rare prize that should inspire qualified candidates to throw their hats in the ring rather than repel them. The absence of competitive general elections led New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand to win the Senate seat once held by Robert Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Hillary Clinton without facing serious opposition in any one of a series of elections. This isn’t the sign of a fully functioning democracy.

The erosion of the Northeast Republican tradition in states like Massachusetts ends up compounding the problem of polarization while depriving voters of a real choice on Election Day. Fortunately, it is a solvable problem—if the respective state Republican parties can recruit credible candidates with the freedom to strike a more centrist profile, balancing fiscal conservatism with social liberalism. This, in turn, might help move the Senate back toward the sensible center.

“It would be good if around the country more Republicans and more Democrats acted like Massachusetts Republicans,” says Cellucci. “Which is, let’s have some principles, but let’s work together to find solutions to the big problems the country faces. We don’t need more people in the U.S. Senate who vote the Democratic line all the time or who vote the Republican line all the time. Instead, they should roll up their sleeves and find a way to work together to solve problems.”

It’s time to put up a sign in the Bay State and beyond: “Wanted: Northeast Republicans.”