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State House Roundup: The More Things Change

In the end, it came down to taxes and turnout.

That two-headed dragon appeared to incinerate Republican hopes for a redder Massachusetts this week.

Carla Howell, the libertarian activist behind Question 3, again played the overzealous foil, opting to pursue a sales tax cut that even the most fervent fiscal conservatives on the statewide ballot couldn't support. Some awkwardly urged a 'no' vote while calling for lower taxes; others urged a 'yes' vote and promised to raise the tax to a more acceptably reduced level.

The question, which would have slashed the sales tax to 3 percent, failed 57-43, with 1.2 million people voting to maintain the current 6.25 percent rate. In fact, opposition to Question 3 was the single-highest vote-getter on the ballot, followed by Gov. Deval Patrick, who won reelection with 1.1 million votes. (Backers of

The tax cut plan mobilized national and state labor unions to pour millions into Massachusetts - including $1.5 million in the last two weeks - energizing a Democratic infrastructure that naturally leaned against Question 3. Had Howell pursued a 5 percent sales tax, her effort would have found favor with nearly every Republican office-seeker in the state and likely prevented active opposition by a business community that backs lower taxes - but not THAT low.

Meanwhile, giddy Democrats pointed to a vaunted get-out-the-vote effort that pumped up the margin of victory for statewide candidates to levels that few, if any, pre-election polls had registered. Auditor candidate Mary Z. Connaughton, the Republicans' best hope to capture a statewide seat, fell by 39,000 votes. Her opponent, Democrat Suzanne Bump, credited the coordinated campaign with lifting her up.

"I think we need to be better ticket-splitters in Massachusetts," Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) lamented when asked about the results.

Patrick stunned Republicans, swamping Charlie Baker by six points in a race that was supposed to be razor-close. Not nearly the 20-point mandate he earned in 2006, Patrick summoned Shakespeare to evaluate: "A win is a win is a win." Republicans rolled out a variety-pack of excuses for the loss, starting with the now-cliché Blame Cahill mantra, to the failure of Republicans to ride a national wave of voter discontent, weakness of their candidates, the Democratic get-out-the-vote "machine," and Patrick's superior campaigning skills.

The depth of Bay State GOP despair is evident in their one rightful boast - a 16-seat pickup in the House of Representatives that essentially doubled their numbers. The practical effect of their gains is suspect. Republicans who couldn't break a veto-proof majority with 16 members, now can't break a veto-proof majority with 32 members.

Improbably, Senate Republicans saw their caucus shrink to four members from five - and two of them may want to be minority leader.

An astute WBUR reporter pointed out that Republican legislative gains created a solid red line along Massachusetts's southern border all the way from Western Massachusetts to the Cape. The epicenter for Republican growth landed in Worcester, hometown of the newly reelected lieutenant governor. Featuring a Republican governor's councilor in Jen Caissie, a Republican sheriff in Lew Evangelidis, and either four or five new Republican reps (depending on a recount), Worcester could be the home of a GOP revival or a fleeting bright spot in an otherwise brutal cycle.

Props to Boston.com for offering a color-coded guide to the vote breakdown, which revealed Democratic dominance in a small ring around Boston, across nearly all of Western Massachusetts and on the outer tip of Cape Cod. Republicans outdid Democrats across central Massachusetts, along the northern and southern borders and in all of Southeastern Massachusetts, with the exception of a bright blue ring around New Bedford.

Although unions drove the spending against Question 3, the alcohol tax will be gone in January, after voters - with the encouragement of millions in spending from booze distributors, including $2.2 million in the last two weeks - supported Question 1 to repeal it. Gov. Patrick said his administration would look for alternative ways to fund programs for those battling "substance abuse demons."

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the architect of a 2009 sales tax hike that fueled discontent in the electorate, became the first speaker to preside over Republican gains in the House since Charlie Flaherty in 1990, and he's held his silence since the polls closed.

The real message sent by the 2010 election in Massachusetts, however, is less evident in the outcome of the races and more in the whiplash-inducing speed with which the political gaze snapped toward 2012.

As one veteran Republican strategist put it, "One cycle ends…another begins."

Even before the polls closed Tuesday, GOP superstars Mitt Romney and Scott Brown made themselves noticeably scarce, opting to protect their sheens of invincibility rather than buck up a quivering, wide-eyed gathering of Baker-campaign faithful in Boston. Until Baker conceded the governor's race, the highest ranking GOP operative that crowd saw Tuesday night was comedian Lenny Clarke.

Democrats wondered whether their intense focus on the ground game could be a blueprint for Democratic victories elsewhere, and, more importantly, when Brown bids for a full U.S. Senate term in two years.

Brown looked more vulnerable in the hours after the election. Selective with his coattails, Brown lifted no statewide candidates to victory. He campaigned hard for Rep. Karyn Polito in the final days of her bid for state treasurer. She lost by 217,000 votes. He backed Rep. Jeff Perry in the 10th Congressional. He lost by 5 percentage points in a race that polls showed as a nail-biter until the end.

Senate President Therese Murray scored the loudest squeaker of the night on Tuesday, eking out a 3,500-vote, four-point win over Republican Tom Keyes. Keyes put a scare into one of the most powerful Dems on Beacon Hill with little, if any, institutional support, hardly any money, and without a whisper from Brown, who carried Murray's district by 20 points in January. Asked Wednesday whether help from the Republican establishment might have carried him to victory, Keyes responded tersely: "Possibly."

Murray outspent Keyes 10-to-1, dropping more than $300,000 into the race, and she scored a late-October contribution from the Democratic State Committee that nearly equaled Keyes's spending on the race through mid-October, a $28,184 in-kind contribution involving printing and postage.

One clue to the silence from Republicans came from Sen. Richard Ross, Brown's Senate successor. "I didn't know [Keyes] really well and I think many of us thought that [Murray] still does enjoy immense popularity as the first female president," Ross said. "I know I wasn't helpful in that particular race for her opponent. I think part of it is that I have been treated very respectfully and fairly within our small body of senators … Either way you're going to end up with a majority member as Senate president. I think many of us would rather have somebody who we feel is collegial. She gave me unfettered access to her office."

The lack of major turnover on a statewide level contributed to a staid feeling on Beacon Hill, and as one Senate Democrat put it, "I'm hearing it's time to govern." The cast of campaign trail regulars have begun morphing into a mosaic of new players inside the State House, where the bulk of change will come at the legislative level, on committee staffs and in the remapping of the legislative power structure.

STORY OF THE WEEK: …the more they stay the same.

This program aired on November 5, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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