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One-Party Massachusetts

September 30, 1996



The Senate race between incumbent John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and his challenger, Gov. William Weld (R), is one of the most watched in the country. Running neck and neck, the two well-financed candidates are locked in what pundits have dubbed "The Battle of the Titans."

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It would be misleading, however, to judge the state of Bay State politics by the Kerry-Weld matchup. By comparison, the struggle between Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans is more like that between a lion and a mouse.

During the end of the last century and much of this, Massachusetts politics revolved around the struggle for power between Yankee Protestant Republicans and Irish Catholic Democrats. As the commonwealth's demographics changed through immigration, outmigration, and differing birth rates, Bay State Republicans refused to accept the lesson their party learned in New York and Connecticut and did not reach out to new ethnic groups. The result was that the state GOP withered slowly on the vine. The party lost control of the state House of Representatives in 1948, of the state Senate in 1954, and gradually saw its control of statewide and congressional offices decline to virtually nothing. The state went from being one of the most Republican in the union to one of the most Democratic.

The GOP reached its nadir in the late 1980s. After the '88 elections, it held a handful of state legislative seats, not a single statewide office, and one single seat in the United States House of Representatives. The party's vaunted liberal wing had all but disappeared.

Michael Dukakis's crushing defeat in that year's presidential race, along with severe economic recession and state-budget problems, had serious political repercussions here. In 1990, voters elected fiscally conservative, socially liberal William Weld the first GOP governor in 20 years, along with GOP Lt. Gov. A. Paul Cellucci and state Treasurer Joe Malone. Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen captured Democratic congressional seats for a net gain of one. And Republicans grabbed one-third of the state Senate, giving the new governor's veto added weight. It looked as though the GOP had turned the corner and that Massachusetts might actually be on the road to becoming a two-party state.

It hasn't happened so far, though. Republicans lost state Senate seats in 1992, and the governor has had to deal with veto-proof Democratic majorities ever since. And while Weld, Cellucci, and Malone won easy reelection in 1994, there's been little party growth in the legislature. Right now 30 of 40 Senate seats are in Democratic hands, as are 124 of 160 seats in the state House of Representatives. Only four states have larger Democratic majorities - Rhode Island, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Republicans aren't expecting any state legislative gains this fall, either, since 132 incumbent legislators, mostly Democrats, face no opposition. (Ironically, some Massachusetts Democrats would be Pat Buchanan Republicans if they lived 50 miles north.)

There are bright spots for the Massachusetts GOP, however. The number of voters registering as Republicans continues to rise, as does the number of candidates at the county level. In 1994, Mitt Romney gave Sen. Edward Kennedy his first real race in decades. Governor Weld may defeat Senator Kerry. And while Democrats have again targeted Reps. Blute and Torkildsen, Republicans think both are safe and that they have a shot at two additional House seats - that of retiring Democrat Gerry Studds and the Berkshire district of Democrat John Olver.

A single-party system in any state is unhealthy, regardless of which party is in power. Political offices at any level need the cleansing flood of change, cleaning out corruption and bringing fresh approaches as the tide flushes a coastal marsh. Continuing ethics problems on Beacon Hill, expensive state control of insurance rates, agencies like the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that go on and on long after they have outlived their usefulness, and police featherbedding on road-construction sites are all examples of why the Bay State needs such cleansing and renewal.

But until Republicans here strengthen their party by reaching out to a broader social and ideological base, and until being a Republican becomes more acceptable in Massachusetts's political culture, a functioning two-party system in the Bay State appears still a long way off.