Politics & Policy

Don’T Mess With Massachusetts

Is bashing the Bay State really going to help Bush?

You’ve heard the M-word–”Massachusetts”–thrown around in the emerging presidential race. You may not have heard it’s an emerging GOP tactic in one of the country’s closest House races, in southwest Indiana.

The National Republican Campaign Committee is targeting the fundraising of Democrat Jon Jennings, a former scout for the Boston Celtics and U.S. Justice Department official, who is campaigning for the seat of GOP Rep. John Hostettler. NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti criticized Jennings for raising 53 percent of his individual donations from Massachusetts and only 29 percent from Indiana donors.

“Maybe his out-of-state supporters will fly to Indiana for moral support in November,” Fonti said.

An NRCC release entitled ‘Indianachusetts’ states, “Jennings boasts his fundraising totals and says, ‘The people I meet throughout this district…are opening their wallets and pocketbooks to help make this happen.’ If that is the case, then most people don’t realize the eighth district includes Cambridge, Boston and several other liberal bastions in Massachusetts where Jennings collected most of his money…. When he is in Washington, Hostettler won’t get his constituents confused with those of Senator Ted Kennedy’s.”

There are some political strategists who think the “Massachusetts” label can sink any Democrat running outside New England.

“No state carries as much political baggage as Massachusetts, the perceived liberal outpost and home to several failed presidential candidates of recent vintage (Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Paul Tsongas),” writes Mark Leibovich, a Washington Post Staff Writer.

“Massachusetts is a great bad guy for Republicans,” says Ed Rogers, a GOP lobbyist who was deputy to campaign manager Lee Atwater for Bush’s 1988 campaign.

With its history of failed presidential hopefuls and the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s recent demand that the state legislature establish gay marriage, maybe the state’s name has become a malediction, as powerful as the curse of the Babe Ruth that haunts the Boston Red Sox.

But there are a couple of risks to the national GOP running with an anti-Bay-State message.

THROW ROMNEY A BONE

For starters, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts wants to be a national leader in his party. National GOP officials trashing his state can only weaken him and the meager state Republican-party apparatus.

With John Kerry the presumptive nominee, Romney is the most prominent–perhaps only–Massachusetts Republican who can criticize the senator for failing to effectively deal with issues in his home state.

But the attack-dog persona doesn’t quite fit Romney’s past, or his hopes for a future role in national politics. He won the governor’s race in 2002 as a nice guy, uniter-not-a-divider-style reformer. He is probably going to have to work with the Democrat-controlled legislature at least another two years, a task that would be complicated by a perception that he’s Bush’s hatchet man.

This doesn’t mean Romney hasn’t been willing to help the party. On Jan. 27, he traveled to New Hampshire to defend President Bush’s record while slamming Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts for waffling on Iraq, education, and trade.

“I like him personally, and we get along socially,” Romney said of Kerry. “But I don’t think I can put my finger on what he fights for. I see him coming down squarely on both sides of issues.”

How much effort will Romney be willing to put into criticizing Kerry if GOP officials are calling his state the “epicenter of the aloof and arrogant” (Rogers) or “separate from America” (as Dick Armey said)?

A major goal for Romney is rebuilding the state party, particularly in the state legislature. But the state’s independent and undecided voters aren’t likely to vote for any GOP official for any position if the national party is associated with Massachusetts-bashing.

REMEMBER THE ALAMO

The Texas-bashing of Al Gore and other national Democrats in 2000 didn’t help their nominee much. Mostly it just irritated Texans, and made the job of the Texas Democratic party tougher.

“There’s a lot of Texans who are sick to death of hearing their state portrayed as some sort of hellhole where people with untreated open sores couldn’t read their insurance policies if they had any,” wrote Houston Chronicle columnist Jane Ely. “Nor, for that matter, could they seek help from a teacher in a Texas school for reading because they’re as wretched as all the other wrongs Gore keeps finding in Texas.”

“Texas isn’t nearly as backward and third world as the Gore campaign would make us out,” Michael Levy, the publisher of Texas Monthly magazine, told the New York Times. “I personally am starting to get offended.”

The Texas Republican party has not lost a statewide race since 1994. That winning streak attributable to a wide variety of factors, but the perception that the national Democratic party doesn’t like Texas, understand Texas, or want to have anything to do with Texas cannot have helped.

NOT THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC IT USED TO BE

Second, the “Massachusetts means dangerously far-left” message has been weakened by signs that the state isn’t as liberal as it used to be.

Four years ago, 60 percent of Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure to roll back the state income tax to 5 percent over a three-year period. In 2002, a statewide referendum calling for the elimination of the income tax won the support of 45 percent of state voters.

“If we had passed that ballot question here, that would have made us New Hampshire,” said Mary Ann Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic political consultant who has worked with Kerry, Kennedy, and former Massachusetts treasurer, Shannon O’Brien.

The state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1986. In November 2002, 68 percent of voters approved a referendum to end three decades of bilingual education by placing immigrant students in one-year, all-English classes before moving them into mainstream courses.

In fact, the whole New England region, land of Kerry, the Kennedys, Howard Dean, and Jim Jeffords, doesn’t seem quite as leftist as its reputation might suggest. Five of the region’s 12 senators are Republicans (Okay, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee aren’t exactly conservatives, but Judd Gregg and John Sununu are). Five of the six governors are Republican. (If GOP Connecticut Gov. John Roland is indicted, impeached, or jailed by the time you read this, Lieutenant Governor M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, would become governor).

WHAT’S THE BEST ARGUMENT?

It’s hard to believe that voters will be more likely to be persuaded by the geographic argument (“Kerry’s ideas and policies are too northeastern, New Englandish, and Bostonian”) than an ideological argument (“Kerry’s ideas and policies are too liberal”) or a practical argument (“Kerry’s ideas and policies on terrorism were tried in the Clinton administration and failed”)?

Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, calls the Massachusetts-focused GOP criticism “absolutely silly.”

“People in Massachusetts, in Indiana, and in every other state get up hoping to have a good job and worrying about their health care,” Speed said. “They certainly don’t wake up holding a grudge against Massachusetts or any other state.”

Republicans will campaign for Bush and against Kerry and cite hundreds of votes, decisions, positions, beliefs, anecdotes, ideas, and policies. Bringing up the reputation of Kerry’s home state will probably be the least persuasive tool in the GOP arsenal.

To borrow a slogan from the great state of Texas, “Don’t mess with Massachusetts.”

Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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