Column: How did the Massachusetts GOP go from being savvy to stupid?

by Bob Waite

Let’s be honest. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is going to be the commonwealth’s 73rd governor. It is only July, and Republican Charlie Baker will remain in office until next January, but the race to succeed him is effectively over. 

Healey’s only credible primary opponent has stepped aside, and the Republicans are about to drink party chair Jim Lyon’s Kool-Aid and commit mass political suicide.

Healey has about as much chance of losing to the GOP’s presumptive nominee (Trumpeteer Geoff Diehl) as Chinese leader Xi Jinping does in his country’s next “election.” The latest poll shows Healey up by 31 points over Diehl. Even Tom Brady could not engineer a comeback that steep.

So when did the Massachusetts Republican Party go from being savvy to stupid?

The GOP was the dominant party in Massachusetts politics from 1858 until the New Deal days of the 1930s, when economic depression and a seismic demographic shift resulting from waves of immigration brought Democratic victories.

By the late 1950s, the state GOP brass knew they needed a new strategy, one that shook off its image as the party of Yankee Protestant elites.

A concerted effort was made to attract Italian-Americans (like John Volpe and Silvio Conte), women (like Margaret Heckler), and African-Americans (like Edward Brooke).

And it worked. John Volpe was twice elected governor (interrupted by Endicott “Chub” Peabody’s improbable 1962 victory, when the Democrats flipped the script by running a Boston Brahmin). Conte and Heckler were repeatedly victorious in their respective U.S. House of Representatives races. 

Ed Brooke emerged as a political force in 1962, when he was elected attorney general. In 1966, he became the first African-American to be elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote. (Until 1912, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures.)

The party’s other winning strategy was to present its gubernatorial candidates as a brake on the overwhelmingly Democratic legislative branch. The pitch — mostly aimed at independent voters — was that a Republican governor could keep an eye on the Beacon Hill cookie jar … and wield a veto if things got too far out of hand.

This also worked. A succession of Republican governors was elected — people like Francis Sargent, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney, and — of course — Charlie Baker.

They won by being pragmatic, preaching stewardship and restraint rather than ideological purity.

So now we have Charlie Baker — arguably the most consistently popular governor in America over the past eight years — opting out of a re-election bid. We had our own Brad Hill step away to be replaced in a special election by a Democrat — the first time someone other than a Republican has represented Ipswich at the Statehouse in 163 years.

And who can blame them? Running under the Republican banner during Jim Lyon’s reign carries more baggage than an Airbus 380.

I worked for Ed Brooke and got to meet folks like John Volpe, Margaret Heckler, and Paul Cellucci over the years. They all had one thing in common: pragmatism.

The reality is that association with Donald Trump in our state is a ticket to political oblivion.

I know some people dispute this. They point to Ronald Reagan, who twice put Massachusetts in his presidential win column. That is true, as far as it goes. But it misses a key factor.

I worked in Reagan’s 1980 campaign. At one point, I came off the trail and had a beer at the PLAV. After talking with some of the regulars, I returned to campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and confidently predicted Ronnie (everybody at the PLAV called him Ronnie) was going to win Massachusetts.

Which he did. But what separated Ronald Reagan from Donald Trump is that the former was positive and relatable, while the latter is, and remains, negative, vindictive … and just plain mean.

In my experience, mean doesn’t play well in Ipswich (or elsewhere across the state).

Jim Lyon has chosen to dive deep into Trump’s dark rabbit hole. And he is taking the Massachusetts GOP with him.

Bob Waite realizes he will be labeled by some as a RINO. But he figures it beats being a jackal. He can be reached at Read more of his columns here.






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