Down, but state GOP says it's far from out

Many seats in Legislature uncontested in November

A group of Boston-area Republicans gathered to watch the vice presidential debate earlier this month. A group of Boston-area Republicans gathered to watch the vice presidential debate earlier this month. (PHOTOS BY ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008
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The Massachusetts Republican bench is looking rather thin this November.

GOP challengers to Democratic congressional titans include the likes of Earl Henry Sholley, once convicted of assault and battery on his 14-year-old daughter for using what he described as "reasonable discipline," and John Cunningham, who recently performed a skit at a rally to decriminalize marijuana. "If they outlaw everything that's dangerous, there'd be no more fun!" he said onstage.

The party's last candidate for governor, Kerry Healey, has interrupted her work on local GOP campaigns to recruit female judges in Afghanistan.

Republican voter registration has sunk to a new low, and without a leader in the corner office, the party has struggled to raise money in this campaign season.

No matter. GOP leaders have adopted a new swagger, regularly blasting out tart-tongued e-mails - with titles like "Democrats Make Pathetic Attempt to Change the Subject" and "Mass GOP statement on Deval Patrick: Patrick's Bad Enough, Obama Much Worse" - that are ticking off Democrats and making even some party loyalists wince.

Chalk it up to the party's new spokesman, Barney Keller, who has been the man behind the curtain throwing rhetorical bombs since he took the job in March. The bluster has not always been persuasive.

"I always think, when I'm having an argument and I resort to being fresh, it's usually because I don't have much else to bring to the table," said state Democratic Party chairman John Walsh.

Keller, the 23-year-old son of TV political analyst Jon Keller, last served as campaign spokesman for Republican Jim Ogonowski, who ran in the Fifth Congressional District special election won by Democrat Niki Tsongas last year. (No one took on the freshman congresswoman this November, and Ogonowski, a party favorite, failed to collect enough signatures to challenge US Senator John F. Kerry in the fall. Another Republican, Jeff Beatty, is running against Kerry.)

On the day of the September primary, a Keller press release quoted GOP executive director Rob Willington as saying: "The choice for voters is clear. Sending the same people back to Beacon Hill will continue to produce the same failures of leadership that currently plague Massachusetts . . . Beacon Hill is broken and the only way the people can fix that is by electing Republican candidates this November."

Except that in many districts, voters still don't have a choice.

Republicans took a pass at challenging 118 Democratic incumbents in the 200-member Legislature and failed to run candidates for six seats legislators are vacating. Only 48 Republicans are running for the Legislature at all, and only four are running for 10 US House seats.

"I don't know how you could do this bad, unless you really weren't trying," said a former Republican State Committee executive.

This summer, Republicans' voter registration dropped below 12 percent. And fund-raising is tough for the Republican State Committee, which raised just $710 last month compared with the Democrats' $71,000, campaign finance records show.

The Republican Party has been accepting contributions from candidates rather than giving them, though Keller says some candidates will be getting support in the coming weeks.

"I don't think this is a year when the Republican Party is going to come roaring back in Massachusetts, but I do think we have an excellent opportunity to pick up some seats in the state Legislature," said former governor Paul Cellucci.

Cellucci has been campaigning with Republicans waging competitive races for open seats in the Legislature - including Hudson's Sonny Parente, Boxborough's Kurt Hayes, and Marlborough's Arthur Vigeant.

But otherwise, those candidates aren't boasting about their party. Their campaign websites - all blue - skip the point that they are Republicans.

"Independent, Republican, and Democratic voters alike are angry and ready for a break from politics as usual on Beacon Hill," says the site for Hayes, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year as an independent. He found a creative way to get people's attention: He raffles off $50 gas gift cards to voters who take the time to talk with him.

Party leaders have been trying to engage the grass roots, starting a blog and launching Facebook pages. They have posted videos on their website, with plans to interview activists and better personalize the party. They are using Google Docs to "decentralize" their data so that a Republican town committee can get e-mails and phone numbers for activists in another town without calling the party for help.

"I think there are some good signs. It's not all bad news," said Jane Swift, former acting governor.

Like Willington, the party's executive director, she pointed to the establishment of GOP presidential campaign field offices in Massachusetts - for the first time since 1988 - giving Republicans a sense of purpose.

"People have to work on something that has a plausible chance of being successful," Swift said.

The party is trying to build a deeper bench by getting Republicans elected as city councilors, school committee members, and city and town officials.

"Do I think it's going to happen overnight? No. But I know my history," said Keller. He pointed to the collapse of the Massachusetts Miracle - the economic growth that folded at the end of the 1980s, along with the presidential aspirations of then-governor Michael Dukakis. That began a groundswell of support for Republicans and ushered in Governor William F. Weld and 16 years of Republican governance.

"We're starting to feel that anger from people now," said Keller.

Do others feel it?

"Well, no. I think that's somebody on the Titanic saying that's just the hull scraping on seaweed," said Stephen Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston and a former top aide to both Cellucci and Swift.

Ultimately, the pendulum will swing back, Crosby agreed. "But I don't think it's starting now. I don't think there's any evidence that it's coming yet."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at

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