The field of candidates vying to succeed Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts grew by one last week. For beleaguered Bay State Republicans, that may be one too many. Convenience-store magnate Christy Mihos bolted the party to run as an independent, increasing the Democrats’ chances of retaking the governorship. The reaction from a local blogger to Mihos’s announcement: “Welcome back, Dukakis.”
Mihos isn’t polished, has never before held elective office, and is the kind of candidate who gives his advisers fits. Five members of his campaign team quit just days before he officially jumped into the race. But Mihos does have the money to finance his campaign himself, and his fiscal conservatism could win over tax-averse independents who have voted Republican in the last four gubernatorial elections. That’s a bloc this year’s GOP candidate, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, needs to win handily in order to have a shot in November.
Since Romney isn’t running for reelection, he might be tempted to ignore the race and head for greener pastures (say, Iowa). But that would be a political mistake. A Democratic pickup in Massachusetts would hurt Romney’s 2008 chances. Healey is his number-two and chosen successor. Her defeat would be interpreted as a repudiation of the Romney administration. Also, as a self-described “red speck in a blue state,” Governor Romney has been sold as a Republican with bipartisan appeal and the ability to build the party in unlikely areas. To validate these selling points, Romney needs to show greater staying power than a single election win. Surely his national reputation as a party-builder won’t endure if the Massachusetts GOP disintegrates on his watch.
This means that Romney must work to keep Massachusetts from reverting to a one-party state in 2006. The Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been making this task easier. Attorney General Tom Reilly, for example, was once the heavy favorite to win both the Democrats’ nomination and the governorship. His fortunes have recently plummeted due to a surprisingly inept campaign.
Reilly’s first running mate abruptly withdrew amidst controversy surrounding unpaid taxes and student loans. He lost February’s Democratic caucuses to challenger Deval Patrick by a 2-to-1 margin. Patrick, a former head of the Clinton Justice Department’s civil-rights division, has no electoral base, relatively low name recognition, and is the more liberal candidate–all factors that make him more vulnerable in the general election. A Suffolk University poll showed Reilly’s 40-point primary lead of last year shrinking to just nine points.
According to the same poll, taken before Mihos’s independent candidacy, either Democrat would still beat Healey. Yet Reilly would get below 50 percent of the vote, and Patrick bests her by just 39 percent to 32 percent. The Democrats aren’t invincible, but it will be hard for Healey to win if her own party is divided.
Last week, Romney joined former GOP Govs. William Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift for a Healey fundraiser. The point was to marginalize Mihos and emphasize that Massachusetts had done well with Republican governors. “The stake has been driven through the heart of the label Taxachusetts,” Cellucci told the Boston Globe. “As long as a Republican is in the corner office, that stake stays firmly in place.”
It remains to be seen how much Romney can help. He has had little success building up the Massachusetts GOP, though it hasn’t been for lack of trying. In 2004, he recruited a slate of 131 Republican legislative candidates, many of them running in districts where Democrats usually win in a walk. Dubbing them Romney’s “Reform Team,” the governor raised a record $3 million for their campaign coffers and gave stump speeches on their behalf.
Come Election Day, however, none of Romney’s candidates won. Republicans actually lost a house seat. Romney leaves behind a pitiful bench of GOP elected officials, including only 21 out of 160 state representatives and 6 out of 40 state senators. If Healey ends up tapping Sen. Scott Brown as her running mate, the latter number could be even smaller after the 2006 elections.
On some issues, Romney and Healey don’t want to be closely linked. Healey distances herself from her boss’s pro-life statements, telling voters she’s “extremely pro-choice.” She favors civil unions but not gay marriage, while Romney opposes both. Yet the two can work together to protect Healey’s right flank from Mihos, himself a pro-choice supporter of same-sex nuptials who won’t be siphoning many socially conservative votes.
So far Massachusetts Republican setbacks haven’t affected Romney’s national standing or diminished his supporters’ enthusiasm. But if the Bay State GOP looses its 16-year hold on the governorship and degenerates into squabbling factions, the case for a Romney presidential candidacy–after only a single term as governor–will be much weaker.
Romney should treat the commonwealth’s 2006 gubernatorial race as his first major test for 2008. Otherwise, would the last Republican elected official in Massachusetts please remember to turn out the lights when he leaves?
–W. James Antle III is a senior writer for The American Conservative.