Peter Ubertaccio: GOP Lessons from Scott Brown’s Victory
January 22, 2010
By Peter Ubertaccio
The 2010 special election validated one of former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's rules of politics: People like to be asked for their vote. Scott Brown, via his organization, his pick-up truck, and old-fashioned shoe leather, asked the citizens of Massachusetts for their vote. Martha Coakley didn't until it was far too late. Not even a Democratic president and former president could save her candidacy from the mistakes of her organization.
O'Neill helped bring the Democrats to power in Massachusetts in 1949, when he became the first Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts House. He did it by providing a clearly defined alternative aided by a strong organizational apparatus that put him and his party in front of as many voters as possible. It is ironic that the Republicans of 2010 best captured the O'Neill pluck.
If the Democrats do not want this election to be a harbinger of things to come, they should pick up O'Neill's autobiography and get back in touch with their roots.
Of course, there were many other factors that brought Scott Brown prominence in this race: the universally shared view of an inept Coakley campaign, an increasingly unpopular health-care plan and Democratic president, the continued rise of independent voters who are turned off by the affairs of one-party control on Beacon Hill, and his own effectiveness as a campaigner.
Yet none of these were sufficient to tighten the race. Brown was able to channel all of this into a strong and active campaign organization.
Reports from the field suggest that the Republicans very early grasped this essential truth as phone banks were set up and could not handle the rush of volunteers. Facebook pages were used aggressively to court voters. Ads were placed on Craigslist around America urging Republicans to come to Massachusetts and assist with the volunteer efforts.
They came because the political environment was hospitable but they also came because they had an energized, positive, forward-looking place to go.
It is important to note that Brown's policy stances did not receive sustained review from his opponent and a media that largely ignored his sprint of a candidacy until very late in the game. These will be subject to much more intense scrutiny when he next runs, in 2012.
But he has time to develop a coherent policy message that will appeal to Massachusetts voters who, despite their liberal reputation, have not only elected Republicans to high office, have done so with considerable enthusiasm.
Gov. William Weld beat his Democratic challenger 71 percent to 28 percent in his 1994 re-election effort. But Weld was also a happy warrior, eager to represent a brand of New England Republicanism, fiscally conservative and socially libertarian that never played well in national Republican circles that are increasingly dominated by Southern social conservatives and their popular television personalities. But Weld also had little use for building up the local party machinery.
Now in a position of leadership in the party, it remains to be seen if Senator-elect Brown and other prominent Republicans are willing to follow Weld's policy lead.
If they do, the combination of a distinctive brand of New England Republicanism plus vibrant and active local organizations will be a strong force to contend with in future.
Scott Brown's campaign pointed out a path to victory for Massachusetts Republicans this year. That path brings them to their own convention in April and on to the statewide elections in November.
If they want Brown's victory to be the beginning of something large and not an anomaly, they need to maintain the organization that brought them this far, sharpen their policy alternatives, and always keep in mind Tip O'Neill's maxim.
Independent voters all over the state seem ready to continue to vote for them if only they continue to ask.
Peter Ubertaccio is associate professor of political science and director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College.
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