Republicans in Massachusetts Failed to Ask and Lost

Republican Sen. Scott Brown, left, shakes hands with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren prior to their debate in Springfi
Republican Sen. Scott Brown, left, shakes hands with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren prior to their debate in Springfield, Mass., Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Tip O'Neill had an important rule of politics: people like to be asked for their vote. It's a rule Scott Brown perfected in 2010. But the lesson was lost on his party this past electoral cycle.

The Democratic Party's strategy of knocking on as many doors as possibly was essentially a nod to O'Neill's wisdom. Republican strategists who continued to focus on Elizabeth Warren's heritage or her legal representation missed the essence of O'Neill's dictum entirely.

Much has been made of the organizational prowess of the Democratic Party under Chair John Walsh which is credited with helping to achieve an impressive victory on Tuesday. Two time losing GOP state senate candidate Tom Keyes declared, "the Massachusetts machine is alive and kicking."

It is certainly alive and does indeed kick the stuffing out of the Republicans. But it is successful not because it is rote but because it draws people into its orbit. It also increasingly exists in a vacuum.

The Republican Party here is perennially trying to build its organization and it never quite gets around to completing the task. More often than not it is handed gifts on a silver platter: the Democrats nominated John Silber in 1990 and helped pave the way for the Weld era. A faulty campaign and depressed turnout in January 2010 helped pave the way for Scott Brown and his sprint in the Senate.

But after each bit of luck, they fail to consolidate their gains and build an actual party organization based on New England conservatism. This decades-long atrophy means the GOP has to recreate the wheel every election cycle.

This is not party building, it's strategy by catch up and it can't be done on the fly and in the midst of an electoral cycle. So they fall further behind.

And they willfully choose to exacerbate their irrelevancy by immaturity: while Scott Brown staffers and Republican activists were fixated on Warren's heritage and thought using the tomahawk chop was serious campaigning, Democratic operatives were going door to door. Over and over again.

Democrats have a strong organization and consistently build on it through aggressive outreach. Republicans start with little and find a way to contract.

Look at the results in three congressional districts. In the new 4th District, Joe Kennedy beat Sean Bielat by 25 points and incumbent GOP state representative George Ross was swept away in the landslide.

In the supposedly GOP friendly 9th, William Keating faced token opponents and beat their combined total by 18 points and the GOP was unable to keep the legislative seat vacated by state representative Daniel Webster.

Their best shot of the night was in the 6th District and even there they couldn't overcome the persistent get out the vote operation of the Democrats.

The GOP turned only one legislative seat last week and their numbers remain anemic: 29 in the House and 4 in the Senate. No statewide or congressional offices. And no farm team to speak of.

It's telling that the only names you hear for upcoming races are Baker and Brown. There was even a rumor that Bill Weld might have moved back to Boston to contest a special Senate election should John Kerry go to the state department. A party with no farm team only has its veterans.

To be fair, the Republican party here faces unusual headwinds: their national party has moved to the south, to the west, and to the right. In many areas it is no longer conservative but radical. Scott Brown and Richard Tisei are not close in temperament or ideology to these elements but they cannot escape them either. They are suspect by association as a result and they have little in the way of an organizational apparatus here to buffet them during national races.

New England's brand of Republicanism is certainly on the decline. But the inability of the state party to engage in the long term work of party building that's necessary to bring people into its organization by asking for their affirmative participation has hastened its demise.