WBUR

Mass. GOP Looks To Unenrolled Voters To Help Snap U.S. House Losing Streak

BOSTON — Democrat Katherine Clark’s special election victory in the 5th Congressional District last week marks the 92nd consecutive loss for Republicans vying to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House.

Democrat Katherine Clark celebrates her victory in a special election for the 5th Congressional District. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Katherine Clark’s special election victory in the 5th Congressional District marked the 92nd consecutive loss for Republicans vying to represent Mass. in the U.S. House. (AP)

Those 92 defeats came in every U.S. House contest since 1996.

“It’s not just that they are losing, they are frequently not able to field candidates,” said Eric Ostermeier, author of the nonpartisan blog SmartPolitics.

In nearly 40 percent of the races, there was no Republican name on the ballot.

“And, they’re losing by wide, wide margins,” Ostermeier added.

The average margin of victory for Democrats was well over 30 points. Most of the 92 races weren’t even close.

Ostermeier said he has seen nothing akin to the Democratic Massachusetts monopoly in recent times, aside from states with tiny delegations, like Rhode Island and Maine.

“When you get to delegations of seven, eight, nine, 10 and above in number, it’s very unusual to run the table and especially for as prolonged as the Democrats have done in this modern political era here in Massachusetts,” Ostermeier said.

For Ostermeier, the Massachusetts political pattern is a sign of the state’s deep blue tilt — a slow transition that started around the end of World War II. Since then, he says, Republicans have only picked up a Democratic seat twice. Democrats have a 99.3 percent retention rate.

In the last 17 years, the only Republican Massachusetts voters sent to Washington was Scott Brown, who won a special U.S. Senate election in 2010.

But, during this federal GOP drought, Massachusetts voters have elected a Republican governor multiple times. On the surface that might seem inconsistent, but for Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, it makes sense. He says in recent years the political map has changed — making it much harder to win a seat in the House than the big chair in the corner office.

“Back in the 1970s and ’80s, and even early ’90s, when you look at town-by-town election results for a statewide election it looks kind of like a checkerboard,” Koczela said. “You’ll have a Democrat town next to a Republican town next to a Democrat town.”

Massachusetts congressional victories, by party, since 1970 (Courtesy Steve Koczela/MassINC)

Massachusetts congressional victories, by party, since 1970 (Courtesy Steve Koczela/MassINC)

Koczela said that’s not the political geography anymore. “Now there’s very clear partisan voting regions,” he explained.

And to make matters worse for a GOP candidate, none of these “partisan voting regions” match up with the lines of a congressional district, Koczela said, so no district favors a Republican candidate. As a result, he added, Republicans really only have a fighting chance in a couple of districts — primarily the 6th and the 9th.

Last Man Standing

Republican Peter Blute is a former Massachusetts congressman who represented the 3rd Congressional District from 1992 to 1996. His district no longer exists in the same form because of redistricting.

Blute calls himself one of the last men standing because he was one of last two Massachusetts Republicans to serve in the House of Representatives. The year was 1996, and Blute remembers it well.

“I got endorsed by every paper in the district — the Fall River Herald News, the MetroWest Daily endorsed me for the first time, The Boston Globe endorsed me for the first time…”

But even with all those accolades of support, Blute lost the election that year by 8 points. He says what really hurt him is that it was a presidential election cycle.

“What happens in Massachusetts, particularly in presidential years, it becomes more of a parliamentary election,” Blute said. “And the question is which party do you prefer, not which candidate and not which person is doing a good job. It’s which party would you prefer to run things? And here, more often than not, that answer in a presidential year is Democrat.”

Courting ‘Unenrolled’ Voters

Democratic candidates often ride the coattails of the national party, and so the Massachusetts GOP is trying to spend more money on its ground game to build up its bench of candidates, working not only with state representatives, but with local municipal candidates to find talent.

Kirsten Hughes, the new chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, knows registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than a 3-1 margin. But she’s optimistic about her party’s future in the state because the biggest group of voters are “unenrolled.” They make up 53 percent of the electorate and Hughes thinks the GOP can tap into that growing segment.

“The average Massachusetts resident that I talk to is tired of one-party rule. They haven’t seen things get better, they’ve only seen them get worse,” she said. “They’re looking for change and I think that’s really where the case is able to be made to unenrolled voters.”

Tisei As GOP Savior?

The sticking point is trying to sell the GOP brand. The party knows it has a David versus Goliath battle ahead, and it’s hoping former state Sen. Richard Tisei will be its David by running for Congress again.

Tisei, who is gay and pro-choice, lost by 1 point in 2012 to veteran U.S. Rep. John Tierney. During that election, Tisei felt he was painted with the same broad brushstrokes as socially conservative Republicans.

“The Democrats, they’ll use the same playbook over and over and over again, and no matter who you are or what your positions or what your record is, they pretty much paint you as an extremist, Tea Party — everything people here in Massachusetts don’t like,” Tisei said.

For him, a New England Republican is not as socially conservative as a national Republican, and he thinks his message of fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism resonates with voters.

And, even if it doesn’t, Tisei also thinks enough people agree that one-party rule is bad for business. The House of Representatives in Washington has a Republican majority and analysts expect that majority will continue. Tisei said that puts the Bay State at a huge disadvantage.

“I do think that is really hurting our state, most importantly because when decisions are being made as far as allocating funds or supporting programming, there’s nobody in the room from Massachusetts making the case for our region,” he said.

If he decides to run next year, analysts say Tisei may be the best bet the party has to end the GOP dry spell — and the odds may be in his favor. He was only a point short in 2012, and luckily for him, 2014 is not a presidential election cycle.

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  • J__o__h__n

    Massachusetts voters have repeatedly voted against the national Republican party. While Charlie Baker could plausibly make the argument against one party rule and that he could serve as a Republican different from the rest of his party, Tisei cannot. Tisei would be a vote for a Republican Speaker of the House and a Republican majority. It is better for Massachusetts to make sure we are part of an emerging Democratic majority rather than think that a freshman Republican from a part of the country nearly written off by the Republicans would have any influence. Scott Brown had an important swing vote in the Senate, but Tisei will be an insignificant rubber stamp for the Republicans even if he defects from time to time on social issues. A vote for Tisei is a vote for the national Republican party whether he likes it or not.

  • GavenCade

    Climate change denialism, hatred of all things government, creationism, anti-science policies, and a pro-corporate culture will see to it that they continue to lose in our state.

  • dust truck

    “Losing streak” Please.

    WBUR stop treating politics like it’s a sport or a game. That’s really bad journalism if you have to make it seem like both sides of a political issue have equal merit or that it’s fun for them to be “battling” all the time.

  • crescentfang

    Gerrymandering was invented here and the Democrats have enough of a majority in total votes to ensure a 100% win rate by adjusting the borders of districts to ensure majorities in every district. The Republicans are copying that tactic in other states where they have a majority and the Democrats complain bitterly about it but they aren’t going to stop doing it themselves.

    • J__o__h__n

      I agree both sides do it, but in other states it has produced more unrepresentative results. States that went blue overall ended up with more red house districts. For statewide races like Governor, Treasurer, and two recent Senate races where gerrymandering cannot be a factor, the Democrats won,

      • crescentfang

        How is that “more unrepresentative” than a system that consistently provides no representation at all to nearly a third of the population of the state? Republicans have as much representation in Massachusetts as the blacks did in the South during the Jim Crow era, i.e. none at all!

        Government is not supposed to be a “winner takes all” game. It is becoming one thanks to our power hungry political class.

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