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Mass. GOP sees silver lining in legislative wins

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / November 3, 2010

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BOSTON—Massachusetts Republicans looked high and low for a glimmer of sunlight in Tuesday's thrashing at the polls.

They found it way down at the bottom of the ticket.

While they lost every statewide office, every congressional race, and saw their numbers in the 40-member Massachusetts Senate dwindle from five to four, Republicans were able to more than double their ranks in the Massachusetts House.

Republicans went into Tuesday's election with just 15 House members on Beacon Hill and came out with as many as 32. The last time there were more than 30 Republicans in the 160-member Massachusetts House was 1996.

Party leaders say the victories show they're succeeding in the gritty work of rebuilding the party from the ground up.

It's a political achievement that eluded even former GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, who tried to boost GOP numbers in the state Legislature by backing a slate of candidates in the 2004 elections, only to see his party lose seats.

GOP leaders said this year they spent time picking their targets, choosing the best candidates they could, including local business leaders and members of boards of selectmen, and grooming them for the campaign.

"We made a concerted effort to put our staff attention into the legislative races," said Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the state Republican party.

The GOP challengers were able to oust a number of Democratic incumbents, including representatives Paul Kujawski of Webster, Barbara L'Italien of Andover, Matthew Patrick of Falmouth, James Fagan of Taunton, Steven D'Amico of Seekonk and Mark Falzone of Saugus.

Some of the GOP wins were narrow and might spark recounts.

Still, North Reading state Rep. Brad Jones, the GOP leader in the House, said the newfound strength of the party could change the political dynamics at the Statehouse.

While 32 lawmakers is still far short of the 54 or so needed to sustain a governor's veto, Jones said it does allow them to parcel out committee assignments and increases the number of eyes on Democratic leadership.

He said it also leaves open the possibility of pairing with conservative Democrats on some issues.

Jones said the surge in Republicans on Beacon Hill is a challenge to Gov. Deval Patrick.

"The governor needs to deal with the reality that the majority of people who went and voted in this election didn't want him to be governor," Jones said, pointing out Patrick got only 49 percent of the vote in the four-way race. "He doesn't have a mandate."

Patrick, fresh of his re-election win, said he's open to working with all lawmakers regardless of party.

Patrick, who has at times clashed with legislative leaders in his own party most notably with House Speaker Robert DeLeo during a recent casino gambling debate, said he expects to find "allies" in the batch of new GOP lawmakers.

"If there are others here who are interested in joining an effort to continue to reform and improve the performance of state government so that it is more focused out at taxpayers and citizens, all for the good," said Patrick, a Democrat. "I don't care what party they're from."

Republican leaders see another benefit in the new class of GOP lawmakers.

For the first time in a long time, Nassour said, the party is building up a team of future candidates for higher office.

One problem the party faced this year, when Democrats were considered vulnerable, was a lack of candidates with campaign experience and a deep knowledge of their districts -- especially in the congressional contests.

If the party can continue to build on their legislative wins, they hope to be able to field stronger candidates down they line.

"This is our farm team," Nassour said. "There are the men and women who in six years, eight years will begin to move up the ladder into congressional and statewide office."