Republicans in disarray in Massachusetts

IT'S been so long since Massachusetts Republicans had much to cheer about that many of them may have forgotten how. Tuesday's election results hardly encouraged them.

While voter registration is heavily Democratic, it's only part of the reason Republicans fared so poorly. GOP aspirants, try as they might, failed to capture the imagination of potential supporters, including Democrats, independents, and voters in their own party.

And the shrillness of their approach drowned out what strong issues GOP candidates presented. The negative campaign tone attracted attention but not the voter response they hoped for.

The oratory, especially in the contest for state treasurer between incumbent Robert Q. Crane and GOP challenger L. Joyce Hampers, was something nobody can take pride in. The Republican's message may have been on target, but the way it was delivered was way off the mark.

Clearly the state GOP's biggest challenge, as it has been since the early 1970s, is to close ranks and end the shabby behind-the-scenes infighting. This can hardly be achieved by those whose views are too narrow to attract even lukewarm support from outside the GOP.

Although Republican George Kariotis had little chance of toppling Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in light of the state's strong economy, the election could have been closer had the Republicans come up with a stronger ballot foe - and earlier in the campaign.

With nearly seven out of every 10 voters on his side, Mr. Dukakis has hardly diminished his national visibility or his prospects to be on the 1988 Democratic ticket.

Dukakis's victory came despite a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm by some conservative state Democrats, who view him as too liberal and even too powerful.

That many who voted for the governor may not agree with his stance on some key issues was underscored by voter approval of a state tax-cap proposal, which he vigorously opposed. And two Dukakis-favored measures - calling for retention of the mandatory seat-belt law and mail-in voter registration - were rejected.

The Dukakis reelection means that Evelyn F. Murphy, his former environmental affairs and economic affairs secretary, will become lieutenant governor and his successor should he move on to national office. She is the first Massachusetts woman elected to statewide office.

The closest contests were for attorney general and treasurer. Twenty-two year incumbent Crane beat hard-hitting challenger Hampers in the former. Ex-congressman James M. Shannon defeated Republican Edward F. Harrington in the latter .

The Democratic sweep included secretary of state and auditor.

Although Republicans have not won a statewide office in Massachusetts since 1970, the latest setback was by far the most decisive. It raises questions about the best course for the party, which for the first time in decades offered voters an all-conservative ticket.

The election had to be chilling to wealthy industrialist and ultraconservative Raymond Shamie, who has twice been the GOP nominee for US senator. Both he and gubernatorial loser Kariotis are among those vying for the GOP leadership, when moderate Andrew S. Natsios steps down as state chairman in a few weeks.

Before the selection of a chairman, Republican leaders are expected to consider new party-charter rules that would limit a chairman to a two-year term beginning in January after an election. That might end the tiresome bickering among various party elements.

Massachusetts needs and deserves a strong two-party system. Anything that might bring that about is worthy of attention now, before it is too late.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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