This is a 9,000-word essay about how, throughout 2014, a desperate and disparate Massachusetts Republican Party both supported and sabotaged the man who worked so hard to save us… from ourselves. Now that he has won, the most important question is whether or not the party can profit from the opportunity that the Governor has given us. The journey of the past year that I describe below shows the state of the party, and points to what must be done.
Note: I am a Republican activist who holds no position in the party. This essay is my opinion alone and has not been aided or authorized in any way by the MassGOP or Governor Baker. See Disclosures and Disclaimers at the bottom for more information.
If you don’t want to take the colorful journey and commentary of the past year, scroll down to the final section: “A Prescription for the MassGOP.”
Before we get to the very long year of 2014, we need to make two stops before that, to properly account for the state of the Massachusetts Republican Party going into it.
2012: A Desperate and Disparate Party
In 2012, the defeat of former Governor Mitt Romney, Senator Scott Brown, and Richard Tisei was so devastating, that only Republicans could have missed the implications.
In my post, I was quite clear:
My fellow Republicans: there is no way that the impact of what happened can be softened by an explanation of circumstances. The Republican brand, on a national level, is now, obviously, completely incompatible with the mainstream political culture of this state. That brand has been created to satisfy constituent groups that are in the South and West of America. It has little to do with us, and we cannot do very much to control it. Brown and Tisei couldn’t get far enough away from it to win, and as polls and advertisements made clear, it was that connection that hurt them most.
It seems clear to me that it is no longer possible for a Republican to win congressional or statewide office. It is not important that you can, in your mind, sketch out the perfect candidate, circumstances, timing, and opponent to conjure up a theoretical win for a high office in this state.
We are, at this point, a regional party with lots of problems, a brand that is toxic, little money, and not much to lift our spirits. As we are no longer viable statewide, it is clear that the party is dead.
But it wasn’t just that we lost the big races… again.
The national party was in the wilderness, the state party was demoralized, there was no visible majority statewide coalition available to us, our technology and field operations were years behind the Democrats, our town committees were weak, the cities (where we lose) were growing, our activists were too conservative for Massachusetts, and right-wing media in this state reinforced everything people don’t like about our brand.
Many activists said that we’d be back, that these were just temporary setbacks. But there was no basis for that statement. Even good candidates with palatable ideology wouldn’t have the stature to gain financial support or media attention for a big race. (Just look at what happened to Brian Herr in 2014 against the unpopular Senator Markey.)
But conservative activists who reject the pillars of Massachusetts political culture saw — correctly— that the party establishment had failed, and they sought to gain more control over the state committee, whose most important tasks are to choose the chairman of the party (and therefore the state party staff) and to draft the party’s platform.
For these conservatives, supporting people and ideas that could win actual elections wasn’t really the goal. “Conviction” was all that mattered. (Fox News has told them so.) That the voters have firmly decided against their convictions again and again was a misunderstanding.
An important note about the word “conservative.” Most Republicans are conservative in some way, giving preference to things that have worked in the past, and wanting to see change justified. I am part of that proud, intellectual tradition, going back to Edmund Burke, long ago. But at this moment, many of the people who call themselves conservatives are getting their identity from right-wing media, and use it to mean that change cannot be justified. A mix primarily of Tea Party members and religious conservatives, they are are also hyper-focused on wedge ‘social’ issues where they disagree with the majority of voters in this state. Therefore, their activities often work against the interests of a party that wants to win elections here.
Yes, there are some wise and wily conservative Republicans I respect immensely. But for every one of them, there are many more who refuse to be realistic about the politics of our state. I end up calling myself a moderate purely to indicate I am realistic, that I have no interest in contesting settled social issues in Massachusetts, that I want an inclusive society, and that my style is totally different from the Republicans on talk radio.
Oh — and one more ominous note from 2012: A member of our state committee, Patricia Doherty, and a few others, wanted to change our platform to make it more “in line” with the national party’s platform on abortion. They decided not to do it before the 2012 election. But I warned people about this initiative in the starkest terms: do not let these people start changing the platform. It would be disastrous.
We will return to this issue, later in this story, when they finally did.
2013: Hope in Second Chances
Since the party didn’t really have a long bench for the big offices, 2013 was a year of hoping for second chances: for Scott Brown, Richard Tisei, and perhaps even Charlie Baker.
Many believed that Scott Brown could and would run again for the other Senate seat. That he might, allowed him, in January of 2013, to lobby the state committee hard to install Kirsten Hughes as the next chairman of the state party. Hughes did finance for him, and as a young mom who was an elected city councilor in Quincy, she seemed like the right direction for the party. She ran against Rick Green, an accomplished businessman and conservative state committee member. He was not a crazy conservative, though those people supported him over the moderate Hughes. She won at the end of January in a squeaker, after an initial botched vote that outraged the state committee. I was there for the drama, and it was awful.
The important thing was that Hughes’s election kept the state party staff moderate in character, and ready for Charlie Baker. (Rick Green, a great Republican citizen, would have supported Baker also, but he would have been a right turn in a party that needed to move toward the center.)
Brown ended up not running again, and after brief speculation that he might run for governor, left the state. (This put a bitter taste in the mouths of state committee members, who believed that he would run again, and therefore supported Hughes, who would never have won without his support.)
As the year progressed, more hope in second chances was fulfilled: Richard Tisei and Charlie Baker would run again in 2014. Each of them, unlike anyone else, could win high office.
Like a lot of other people, I thought, “OK. Maybe we aren’t dead yet on the big races. Maybe we have one more chance with these two.”
One more note about Scott Brown: while he provided a tremendous boost of party morale in his victory and his time in the Senate, it is amazing how little he left behind for us to work with. No one in later legislative races gained votes from those who voted for Brown. Just about all the first-time candidates who said, “Scott Brown won my district” ended up losing anyway. (I saw that first hand, working for a special election candidate in the Spring of 2010.) There were no “Scott Brown Republicans” that came into the tent. Worse, Brown rented his data and infrastructure from outsiders and left the party and future candidates with almost nothing.
Seeing this, a consensus developed among activists and party officials: future statewide campaigns had to improve the data and infrastructure of the party for everyone else. And Charlie Baker would do that.
Oh — and one more important development for the end of 2013: a man appeared that no one had heard of: Mark Fisher. He said he wanted to run for governor, putting up a one page website saying his goal as governor of Massachusetts was to remove the tolls on the Mass Pike. That was it. He aligned himself with the Tea Party — though my Tea Party friends said they’d never heard of him.
As he had no money, support, activist history, or qualifications to run the state, I dismissed him as a clown.
Winter of 2014: Morale and Sabotage
2014 began with talk about the March convention and a special election in January. That election for state representative was in the 9th Norfolk, to replace Representative Dan Winslow, a creative and socially moderate legislator who was widely admired across the political spectrum.
That district is one of the most Republican-friendly in the state. The Republican candidate was Shawn Dooley, the ideal for any district: smart, sensible, knowledgeable, politically experienced, and a long-time public servant in his community. In that district, he could have run as a tough conservative who attacked the Democrats. But he didn’t. He wanted to get things done on Beacon Hill, and he had real expertise to offer.
In hindsight, there was no way he could lose.
Shawn’s campaign mattered because of how many activists and politicians flocked to help him. Many told me, “It feels so good to work for someone who can actually win!”
He won by a big margin, and there was a huge party. The activists got a morale boost, and, in contrast, saw how pointless it was to work for people who really couldn’t win. They really wanted to win again badly, and this dose of productive activism was the perfect warmup for the road ahead.
Almost no one knew, in the cold, dark, month of February, that our state committee was secretly coming up with a new party platform for the next four years. Even I was unaware they had returned to this sinister work.
So we were shocked to read in the Boston Globe that our 80-member State Committee was going to adopt a new platform that came out against gay marriage and abortion(!?).
Despite widespread outrage, it came to a vote in a few days, and was only debated for 20 minutes. It was even worse than predicted.
It was billed as a “compromise” between social conservatives who wanted it to be far worse, and moderates who didn’t want to go against the overwhelming majority of voters on marriage and abortion. But this wasn’t just policy. On gay marriage, it was bigotry for the majority of the platform committee.
Yes, bigotry. It would be one thing to maintain a long-held position on traditional marriage. But to fight to put opposition into the platform after 10 years of successful gay marriages? To suddenly make it official that Richard Tisei’s marriage had no value? That’s hate. Those who merely didn’t like gay marriage would have left the platform silent on the issue. And it gets even worse than that: the sentence after the one against gay marriage said that the platform did not prevent anyone from sponsoring a ballot initiative. That was there, as I was told, because the social conservatives didn’t want the compromise language to stand in the way of repealing gay marriage. Yes, we actually have activists who want to repeal it, and the platform committee wanted to leave that door open.
But the platform (a PDF on the state party site, instead of searchable text —intentionally) was flawed in other ways. It had sloppy, incorrect statements, like saying you can’t start a mom-and-pop business anymore, or that entrepreneurs work 20 hours a day. It says that government “preys on” its citizens. It kept the outrageous language on religion from the previous platform, which I wrote about in an essay.
The platform passed by a big margin, but my guess is that many didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, as they had little notice and almost no debate.
However, our party chairman, Kirsten Hughes, came out against it. Charlie Baker and Richard Tisei were also against it. In fact, the only person in a major race who said they were in favor of it was Mark Fisher. (Yes, our candidate for state auditor, a member of the state committee, voted for it, but she never mentioned it in her campaign, which was about auditing, not policy.)
The Democrats had a field day with the platform, especially that our major nominees and chairman opposed it. Former Massachusetts Democrat Party Chairman John Walsh and others joked in Twitter about the farce of a party chairman coming out against the party platform.
Yes, once again, we were the party of idiots on the pages of the Boston Globe.
After the platform debacle, talk turned to the convention in late March. I was a super delegate and I helped the state party with some of the technology issues at the convention, such as creating maps of where delegates were coming from, and a mobile application full of party information.
I was excited to attend my first convention, but I couldn’t help but notice the difference between ours and the one to be held by Democrats in June. Ours would be a one day affair, held once every four years, with about 3,000 attendees, and almost no suspense about outcomes. The only person speaking at our convention that the man on the street might have heard of would be Charlie Baker.
The Democrats had a convention every year with at least 10,000 attendees. They had many contested races, much more media attention, and always had well-known speakers. There was simply no denying it: we aren’t really competitive with the Democratic party, as an organization. They are operating at a whole other level than us. But our activists watch the Republican-Democrat struggle on national television and forget that there isn’t parity here at all.
But as I was preparing for our convention, I was worried about the delegate vote a few weeks ahead of time. I remembered the controversy at the chairman’s election a year ago. I asked on Facebook if the state party that couldn’t count to 80 was going to be able to count to 3,000. I even said that perhaps our Republican town clerks could assist with the delegate election. But I didn’t push the issue. After all, who was worried about the election? Even the conservatives didn’t think that Mark Fisher was going to get anywhere the required 15% to force a disastrous primary. (Note: I mention my worries about the election not to brag, but to point out that the disaster to come was foreseeable.)
I was still angry about the platform. (In fact, Richard Tisei was so upset, he boycotted the convention in yet another bad media moment for the MassGOP.) I ended up wearing a rainbow pin at the convention in protest, and a rhino pin to make fun of the social conservatives. I even gave out rhino pins to fellow moderates at the show.
At one moment at the convention, a young Republican activist came up to me, looked directly at the rainbow pin, and whispered, “Thanks.”
I lowered my head and thought, “Jesus. What are we doing to these people?”
The convention was fun, though it was clear to visiting impartial observers that this was a coronation for Charlie Baker and no one else had any chance of winning statewide office.
The optics of the convention delegates were terrible. Our demographic problems were on display. I proclaimed to friends, “Welcome to the gathering of straight, white, middle-aged Christians with private health insurance!” I challenged people near me to find a non-white person in the audience. Nobody could find one in their field of view, even though there were a handful present. I said to a top party official about the crowd, “There is no future in this.” He looked down and told me, “Charlie can change this.”
I was stuck in one of the crowded aisle staircases while navigating the convention, and ended up retreating and sitting near an older couple, who were wearing a generous amount of Republican paraphernalia. I introduced myself: “Ed Lyons: Republican philosopher and engineer.” They smiled. They said that they had gone to conventions for many years. I was intrigued, as a newcomer. I asked what was different in the past. The woman, in her late 60s — at least— said, remorsefully:
“The speakers were better. The candidates were better. The audience was younger… as were we.” She looked a bit sad.
I genuinely felt bad. For them. For all of us.
I listened to them for a while talk about the past. I wish I recorded it and that I could make every young Republican listen to what they told me. But I then explained that there were good people who wanted to reform the party and make it strong and relevant again.
But they agreed with me on one thing for sure: there was no path forward without Charlie Baker winning. They knew him, and loved him.
I thanked them sincerely, walked away, and thought, “From now on, I won’t just think about the young Republicans who are suffering from this party’s alienation. The old ones are suffering, too.” I hadn’t even contemplated that before. I decided that it is the middle-aged Republicans that have become used to our problems, and can imagine nothing else.
I walked up to the main concourse, and noticed a table where a local pair of unusual textile merchants from Tucker Blair were selling interesting trinkets, including handmade belts that said, “Charlie Baker 2014.” I was intrigued. They also had a flask with… a Republican elephant on it? The stuff wasn’t cheap, but it was excellent quality. (The flask, in the photo atop this essay, was $65 without whiskey.) Sold!
I bought the flask, and told them I would drink from it when Charlie Baker won, and would drink far more from it if he lost. They laughed.
Everyone was surprised to learn that an Abraham Lincoln impersonator would give a speech. I thought of something few people knew, but some may have noticed anyway: there was an open slot because there wasn’t a big-name guest speaking at the convention. I had heard that we tried to get someone, and failed. (Yet another sign of decay that younger activists might not have even noticed.)
Soon, Mark Fisher spoke. He embraced the party platform and said, “Hold me responsible” for it. He talked about the Republican Party and how he would help it. (For the record, he would vote for independent Scott Lively in November, declaring there was no difference between Baker and Coakley.)
I didn’t like how much applause Fisher was getting during his speech. I leaned over to Massachusetts College Republican Chairman Ted Dooley and said, “I think he’s getting 15% of the applause.” He gave me a nod of resignation. Suddenly, Fisher getting on the ballot and forcing a primary seemed possible, even though days before, even conservatives told me they didn’t think he’d break 10%. But… a primary? Madness!
Weeks before the convention, I even wrote a blog post saying we couldn’t afford a primary, and that for the MassGOP, it was “Baker or bust.” Many people agreed with my do-or-die view of the governor’s race, but no one else wanted to come out and say it.
Baker gave a speech that was fine, but not inspiring. He offered little partisan rhetoric to us, and did not even hint at the dire consequences to our party if he lost in November. He did not challenge the ridiculous assertion of Fisher’s people when they called and lobbied us delegates in the previous days: that a primary was healthy and would strengthen the eventual nominee.
The voting began, and due to poor schedule management, was almost two hours late. (Tardiness was fatal as it meant the vote couldn’t be challenged and fixed at a late hour when people were already leaving.) The election was chaotic. People weren’t sure where to go to find the people with binders of paper checklists that were somehow transported through time to a political convention in the year 2014. Delegates wandered through their section trying to find out who had the binder. I watched a disoriented Governor Weld step over rows of stadium chairs, trying to figure out where the tally person was for our section, while an assistant of his barked questions into a walkie-talkie about where he had to go. I didn’t know. I kept asking people before finally finding the person and checking the box for Baker. What a mess.
As we all know, the delegate vote was botched. Oddly, the problems ended up not being in the tallying, but in the gathering in the hall. (Note that I don’t know what happened in the back room. I just came to an inescapable conclusion about what happened based on public disclosures.)
After confusing tallies called out from senate districts and a long, agonizing wait, Baker came out and spoke. No mention was made of Mark Fisher. The confetti fell, and we all stood on the floor of the convention center, confused. Party officials were scurrying around, wondering how Fisher wasn’t announced as being on the ballot when back-of-the-envelope calculations showed he made it by a whisker.
But Baker left, and the cleaning people started coming in and swept up the confetti. Some of us just stayed on the floor, looking around in astonishment. I was next to the three MassPoliProfs, who had come to witness the convention. I felt like an embarrassed father who was ashamed at the conduct of his family while guests were over. I looked at Professor Cunningham and said, “The party that so often advocates unpopular voting reforms sure doesn’t know how to run an election. What a mess.”
The intrigue went on for weeks, the media had fun with lots of stories that made the party look bad. Finally, the MassGOP let Fisher on the ballot, but found an escape hatch in party rules that let them endorse Baker and cooperate with his campaign despite the primary. (That rule was designed specifically for this situation.)
But I couldn’t help but think of the delegates and how they voted. What the hell were they thinking? How could they see a primary as anything other than destructive? Why didn’t they see that Fisher was a fundamentally unserious candidate who, the previous month, raised less money than the College Republicans? Why didn’t they get that party cooperation before the late primary was essential to winning a close race in the fall?
It seemed like we, as a party, though looking into the abyss, just didn’t want to win badly enough.
A Summer of Infrastructure, Outreach and ‘Republican Charlie Baker’
But once the party endorsed Baker, everyone forgot about Mark Fisher, who boasted that he was trying to stay off Charlie Baker’s radar screen. (Mission accomplished.)
I got to meet Brian Wynne that summer, the new head of MassVictory (the MassGOP’s grassroots organization) and he was a real—and rare—GOP data guy. Baker was building up the party’s infrastructure — not just for him — but for all candidates. Finally, we were getting serious about this stuff! I was impressed with Brian, who recently was named to take over as Executive Director of the MassGOP.
As for Baker, he was still behind in the polls. On Jim Braude’s television show, both he and Chairman Hughes — on separate occasions — were both asked if there was any point in the MassGOP even continuing as a party if Baker and Tisei couldn’t win. They didn’t really answer. But what could they say?
Also at this time, some long-time activists began to confide in me about the stakes for them, with statements like, “If Baker doesn’t win, I’m done. There’s no point anymore.” I told them I was with them. I had no interest in a dead party that would be fully controlled by the social conservatives, who would certainly dominate the state committee. Also, a Baker loss would also mean the fall of all the moderates at state party headquarters.
Fortunately, Charlie Baker was getting media attention for a massive and sincere outreach in the cities and to non-traditional demographic groups for the party.
It had been going on for months, but now people were noticing. This man really was chasing 100% of the vote, as he promised. For those of us who dreamed of a larger, more diverse party that could win again, this was exhilarating. Finally, we had a statewide Republican in the cities making friends. (This was a big contrast to Scott Brown’s campaign hiring homeless people to wear T-Shirts in Boston saying they supported his campaign. Yeah, we actually did that.)
As a Boston resident, I was so happy to see Charlie Baker signs in places where I had never seen any Republican sign before.
Everything else in state politics was going Baker’s way. The full damage of the Health Connector scandal was finally in full view, and the Probation patronage trial was going on, and getting media attention. The guilty verdicts were handed down, and all of Beacon Hill was under a cloud. It was a good reason for the voters to vote for Charlie Baker in the fall.
Charlie Baker had little to say about the probation scandal. That was important, and a departure from the strategy of previous Republicans.
For years, I have heard speeches from Republican candidates talking about “cleaning up the mess on Beacon Hill.” Yet the voters never seem to act on that. They would rather have ethically-compromised Democrats than untrustworthy Republicans, as I am fond of saying.
But Baker wasn’t running against the state legislature. He actually wanted to work with them to do things. That was something new.
As for the Democrats, the voters had clearly settled on Attorney General Martha Coakley, though nobody but the voters liked her. Not the activists. Not their convention delegates. Certainly not the media. (Nestor Ramos wrote a front-page Globe profile about her that was so odd and damaging that not the campaign, not the Democratic party, and not a single activist linked to it anywhere in social media.) Problematic polling showed her far ahead the whole time, though #mapoli sages (like the MassPoliProfs) knew it was closer.
But the Democrats began to notice that they weren’t going to face the Charlie Baker they knew from 2010. They saw his outreach. His enormous fundraising power. And they saw that he was making up ground while they were in a drawn-out primary. They began to get nervous. Advice came from every quarter.
The prescription everyone offered, all the way to the general election, had one thing in common: keep calling him “Republican Charlie Baker.” There is no better example than the absurd issue ad below where students call him, “Republican Charlie Baker” over and over and over again.
This typical “call them Republican” strategy stings us moderate, normal Republicans, who are nothing like the stereotype people have built up watching out-of-state Republicans on MSNBC.
We keep looking for a moderate to refurbish the brand, to make it something that works here. Yet as candidates, the moderates only avoid the label, hoping to win. Baker was no different.
There were two moments that really stood out.
The first was in a primary “debate” where Baker was asked to name a Republican he considered a role model. He struggled to name a contemporary figure. As he waited to respond, you could feel a massive decision-tree kicking off in his very powerful brain. (You’d think he was asked to name a favorite member of the Supreme Court during the American Civil War.) He finally came up with Jeb Bush. I thought, “Ugh. A Republican who knows everyone couldn’t come up with a single republican from this state he can endorse.” (I think former Representative Dan Winslow would have been one of a few good choices.)
There was another occasion when Baker was asked why he was a Republican. He repeated something Governor Weld had said: Republicans in power in this state don’t owe anyone anything, and that’s an advantage. I thought, “Yes, that matters. But Evan Falchuk can say that, too.”
Apparently there was almost nothing about being Republican that Baker could own up to during the campaign.
One of the most interesting things that happened in the massive and wonderful buildup of political coverage at the Boston Globe is that there was polling done on major issues every week, with wonderful charts that went with them.
For the first time in years, we had public polling showing, decisively, that the public clearly disagrees with the national Republican Party on things like taxes, the environment, universal health coverage, abortion, the role of government, and gay marriage.
From the Globe: “A majority believes that government should provide health insurance, reduce climate change, and whittle the income gap. On social issues, more than three-quarters back same-sex marriage and nearly as many support at least conditional access to abortion.”
For example, polling showed 71% of voters believe the planet is warming, and 73% believe that humans are mostly the cause. I can name maybe five Republican activists who have admitted those two things publicly. (Many believe it, but say nothing.) Also, 70% of the voters want legal abortion.
Such results would only be a surprise to conservative activists, who have been convinced by Fox News that most people in the country are really conservative, which must apply to Massachusetts in some way — that no one has figured out yet.
But there it was: over a period of weeks, the conservative viewpoint on their favorite issues was invalidated for statewide campaigns. (Sure, conservative views might work in a handful of state representative districts, and there are little openings among these issues.)
Our party platform was dead on arrival. The views of Charlie Baker’s 2014 campaign were the ones the public wanted.
But for us moderates, it all fell into place: if Charlie Baker and his views won, it would all make sense: we would become a moderate party that actually agreed with the voters on many things, rather than an irrelevant one that disagreed with them on most things. As I like to say, we have to become a moderate party that includes conservatives, not a conservative party that include moderates. Baker could make that happen.
But we had to win first.
Primary Night and the Home Stretch
Primary night was an unusual affair — held in Dorchester, a place not on the Republican campaign map previously. Baker won, of course. He acknowledged Mark Fisher, still suing the party, only in one line. (I think he thanked him for his interest in politics or something.)
It is important to note that Mark Fisher got a startling 25% of the vote that night, more than anyone predicted, amounting to 9% of registered Republicans. This is a small, but significant number of Republicans who have no credible theory of how we win statewide races, and don’t care if we become irrelevant.
As for the crowd, I thought it was remarkable that the gathering wasn’t just the usual group of white people I already knew.
For instance, I saw a group of well-dressed young black men standing together. They appeared to be around 18 years old. I walked over and welcomed them. I didn’t think they were young Republicans. They said they were impressed by Mr. Baker. I said that each of them could be governor one day. They smiled.
There was also some diversity at the podium for the warm-up speeches. It was wonderful. I realize that this isn’t odd at Democratic events. But it is for us.
On the other side of the race, Attorney General Martha Coakley won, but not by a huge margin. The activists are not excited about her and the party is not united: a requirement at this point for a Baker victory. She polls ahead of Baker, but only by a few points. She doesn’t have a lot of money, while Baker does. Half of Steve Grossman’s supporters say they would vote for Baker over Coakley.
The activists and I came to a conclusion: Baker can do this.
The media and Democratic establishment see Coakley’s weaknesses. They are worried about a repeat of 2010, despite the fact that she is running a much better campaign and is working hard.
I wasn’t thinking about a 2010 repeat. I saw a photo on primary night of a Coakley supporter out at midnight the night before, leaving literature at a door in Back Bay. I thought, “These people are going to leave it all on the field. If we aren’t ahead by at least five points on election day, they can beat us.”
As for Richard Tisei, he is fading down the stretch as Seth Moulton surges as the novus homo of Massachusetts politics. (I was worried about Moulton winning from the moment I saw his first excellent campaign video about fixing things.) I knew then: it’s just about Charlie Baker now. (Also, it was now clear that a Republican can’t win a House seat anymore.)
As for the Baker campaign, I was impressed by how they were doing. If anything, that they were so fantastic, and ahead by so little against Martha Coakley, frightened me. How could we have so many advantages and be so close? The positive forces that had led to Republican governors in the past were now weakening in the face of negative forces about the Republican brand. Thank God for the incredible efforts by Lauren Baker and Women for Charlie. Cutting the gender gap down to size was crucial.
I started off election night in Brookline at one of my local bars. I was with Curt Myers, a charismatic young Republican who ran for state representative against Representative Frank Smizik. Curt spoke at the MassGOP convention, and was well-received by all, including those in attendance who were not Republicans.
His race was un-winnable against an entrenched incumbent in the third-most liberal district in the state, but I got involved months before as an adviser. He ran the kind of campaign that our party’s future depends upon in the suburbs: a pro-government Republican who is respectful, smart, moderate, and focused on reform. He only got 18% of the vote, but he got respect from the media and many Democrats. (But it is important to note that this young man got spat on three times by Brookliners for being a Republican. That wasn’t a shock to me, I have been a Republican in that neighborhood for years. But yeah — spat on. That’s the state of the brand in the wealthy ‘burbs.)
I got to the Baker election night party late. After midnight, it was clear Baker had won, that the outstanding votes couldn’t make up the difference.
I ran into a high-ranking party official. He gave me a big hug. I said, “We almost died tonight.” He nodded. I was too relieved to smile. I looked into his eyes and said, “It really was Baker or bust.” He gave me a serious look. “Yeah… it was.”
In fact, I didn’t smile the entire evening. The close result made it feel like a near-death experience. I didn’t even have a drink at the party. I drove home shortly after 1:30 a.m. I got to my desk and turned on my computer for election results. I took off my tie and threw it on the table. I pulled out my handmade Tucker Blair flask that I had bought at the MassGOP convention. (See the picture atop this essay.) It was full of good Irish whiskey I filled it with after the convention in March. I poured myself a double into a jigger, and had my first drink of the night. I said, “To Charlie Baker. You did it.”
I had not even the slightest desire to gloat on Twitter. I had planned on calling out former Democratic chairman John Walsh, who, months before, gently mocked me when I told him he was overconfident about Coakley. But I didn’t even want to do that. I still couldn’t bring myself to smile.
Transition and… Recrimination?
I was in a warm glow the next day, and not because of the booze. I was also happy that the party picked up a few more Republican state representatives and senators, including a few friends of mine. (I then realized there were elections in other parts of the country. I was amazed that I had forgotten about life outside of Massachusetts for months.)
I took a deep breath the next morning and knew: everything was possible now.
However, our too-conservative state committee was angry. They were already planning a censure resolution against Baker’s mentor Bill Weld, and a challenge to the chairman of the party. My response to fellow activists was this: “Someone has to be held accountable for allowing Charlie Baker to win.”
The press, which has low expectations for the MassGOP, was still astonished that the party would be doing anything but celebrating. The best pithy reaction was from the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos:
Conservatives said that former Governor Bill Weld, despite being key to Baker’s victory, had to be removed from the party and give back his previous party awards(!?) because he endorsed the wrong guy somewhere out in the provinces, who lost anyway. This desire showed how petty and immature the hard-core social conservatives can be in this state. They passed the resolution, but removed his name from it, condemning anyone who endorses a Democrat for any reason. Fools.
As for Chairman Hughes, the conservatives never liked her. The reason for opposing her at that moment was that they didn’t want someone who liked Baker in control of Merrimac Street. There had to be balance between Baker and other factions. (Balance between the winners and the losers? Yes, that was the thinking.)
Meanwhile, back in the actual government, Governor-Elect Baker assembles a diverse, credible transition team that takes a non-partisan approach to state government and its problems.
People were amazed at the makeup of the transition team policy committees and the cabinet, and how few were purely party figures. My response to skeptical Republicans was blunt: “Mr. Baker wants expertise in a broad array of policy areas. Where are the Republican experts in all these areas?” Most of the government and non-profit expertise in our state was in the hands of people who are Democrats. (Yes, on things like education and business, there are plenty to be found on our side.)
The transition went well. The policy meetings were productive and professional. The cabinet began to fill up with a diverse group, and quite a few Democrats. I was impressed.
Baker was also realizing his vision of creating a Lincoln-style cabinet full of creative friction that only a confident leader like himself could handle.
Still, some party members grumbled that more Republicans weren’t chosen. But Baker wanted the best, and the mature people in the party accepted that excellence was more important than partisan identity, that a successful administration was the top priority, for the state, and for the party.
Inauguration and the Promise of Government
On the morning of January 8th, I brimmed with pride while I was putting on my suit. I was off to the inauguration of Charlie Baker, and finally, I was smiling.
I had never been to one before. In fact, I had never been to that part of the statehouse before, despite all my years of activism.
I waited to get into the statehouse for more than 30 minutes with many suffering people outside who also had not planned on being outside for so long in such bitter cold. Some were really suffering. When I finally got inside, I noticed an unknown man standing on the second stair of a side staircase, giving commands, and helping to speed the line along through security. I recognized him as Steven Kadish, incoming Baker Chief of Staff, being useful where it mattered most at that moment, instead of waiting upstairs to become a very important man. I smiled and was impressed.
I walked upstairs and stood in Memorial Hall as Charlie Baker entered to thundering drums and blaring bagpipes. A diverse throng jostled to get a glimpse of a man who was shaking as many hands as possible. It was quite a spectacle. And what was it about? The promise of government. It wasn’t about dismantling a government that conservatives claim can’t do even one thing right.
Suddenly, at my feet, I saw a little black girl who was only a few years older than my daughter. Perhaps 8 years old, she had a big camera and some sort of pass around her neck. She looked sad that she couldn’t get a picture from four-feet tall. I knelt and smiled at her. She said she wanted a picture of Mr. Baker. I grinned from ear to ear. I made sure she got one.
She was thrilled. I thought, “She may grow up and find comfort in the Republican party.” I loved everything around me: the diversity of attendees, and the wonderful food from Haley House nearby. And then I was resolute: “We are not going back. We are not going back to the party of middle-aged white people who don’t live in cities. We are going to stop making excuses for intolerant people. We will exclude them in the name of welcoming in the other 90% of this state.”
(That’s in line with one of my trademark expressions about the hard-core social conservatives: “I don’t know if we can win without you, but we can’t win with you.” Though Charlie Baker did win without them, insomuch as he didn’t adopt their high-priority positions.)
As for Governor Baker’s speech, he praised Democrats, and asked people to put aside partisanship. He offered little to Republicans other than education reform and the promise of fixing the problems of the bureaucracy.
After the speech, I talked with some party officials. Rumor had it that Chairman Hughes’s challengers didn’t have enough support, so Merrimac Street would be safe from a coup of conservatives who didn’t like Governor Baker.
Party officials in attendance I spoke to agreed that we were the party of Charlie Baker now. But what does it mean to be the party of a man whose Republican identity is barely detectable by the public and the press? I asked several people.
No one had a clear answer.
A Prescription for the MassGOP
So what does a state party do when it’s public face runs a centrist campaign and asks everyone to “put aside partisanship?” To so many Republicans who think activism is solely about partisanship, it would seem that Governor Baker had asked all of us to stop being Republicans.
But has he?
No. But what he is asking us to do is to think about how to be productive more than oppose the Democrats. We need more skills, policy ideas, and service; and far less outrage.
But what about activism?
Not everything we do should be something practical in the service of the Baker administration. After all, we have to solve party problems that Governor Baker does not need to.
But now that elections are over, and that Kirsten Hughes will almost certainly be re-elected Chairman, it is time for us to stop thinking entirely about the next election, and start thinking about what being Republican means to us, and everyone else in this state. (When Commonwealth Magazine calls Charlie Baker, “A Republican with a heart,” it’s time for the rest of us to talk honestly about why so much of the public thinks we’re heartless.)
It is a time for philosophy among Massachusetts Republicans! (How often does that happen?) And to be clear, liberals, moderates, and conservatives are all welcome to ponder how to reform the party, as long as their ideas could gain majority support across the state.
That being said, while we don’t have to adopt the political identity of Charlie Baker, he has shown the way to a stronger party in several areas:
- Professionalism and better management
- Accept the consensus on many ‘social issues,’ and find new ones
- Be the creative minority
- Say goodbye to broad, anti-government rhetoric
- Prioritize the center over “the grassroots” for now
- New terms of engagement in media and punditry
- Engage in uncomfortable outreach
1. Professionalism and better management
One thing many veteran activists have told me is that the Baker campaign and transition has been more serious and professional than other campaigns they have worked for. We should make a resolution that we take our internal activities far more seriously, not just to be more effective, but to show potential volunteers that we are worth working with, and that their time will be well-spent. The fiasco at the 2014 Convention should remind us that details matter, as Charlie Baker likes to say. Another example is the party platform. It should not have been done in secret and rushed to a quickie vote. The Maine GOP drafted a platform, and put it out for public review for months before voting on it. All the activists I know agreed that we should have done what Republicans in Maine did.
2. Accept the consensus on many ‘social issues’ and find new ones.
One thing the Boston Globe’s issue polling has finally shown clearly is that on some key issues, a large majority of voters here have made up their minds for the foreseeable future. (True, we knew this already for years.)
We cannot be the party of a group of what I call, “25% positions” on matters such as gay marriage, man-made climate change, abortion, basic gun control, and immigration reform. Yes, many conservative activists hold the opposite view of the public on most or all of those issues. But that basket of positions will make a candidate unelectable in almost all races in this state, and a non-starter for any statewide office. It is time to find new social issues to rally around where the public is open to debate, such as privacy, education, criminal justice reform, religious freedom, reduction of debt, individual liberty, and supporting work rather than providing too many incentives to not work.
What does this mean for conservative activists? For the 9% of registered Republicans who voted for Mark Fisher? They should consider walking the path that Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito has laid out for them. She went from a conservative who flirted with the Tea Party to a moderate Lieutenant Governor who met with gay teenagers to listen to their concerns.
Conservatives can have their legacy positions on gays, guns, religion, and immigration… or they can have power. The Lieutenant Governor now has quite a platform to advocate for much of what she used to stand for, but not everything. Her ascent is a lesson in the tradeoffs of politics.
Oh — one more point on this: our platform can’t just be “silent” on these issues, as we were before the state committee became more conservative. National right-wing media bombards people in this state daily with the voices of conservative politicians and pundits. They will assume those voices are stating what we believe, unless we stand up and say, “No! That is not us.”
(For proof, a poll was conducted late in the summer of 2014 that said only 10% of voters thought Baker was pro-choice, despite that he has been that way for years and his ads have always said that. How could they believe that? Because he’s the Republican.)
3. Be the ‘creative minority’
An activist told me a Democrat friend told her Republicans should be ‘the creative minority.’ Unhampered by special interests and having lots of Republicans in power, we should be able to come up with interesting ideas that would reform government and help people. No, we cannot import ideas from Republicans in Washington, D.C. and wage hopeless battles to get them implemented here. We must find solutions that will work in this state that the Democrats cannot, or will not, put forth. There is so much we can do, especially when we avoid the hot-button issues.
4. Say goodbye to broad, anti-government rhetoric
Thanks to consumption of so much national right-wing media, Republicans in this state, without intending to, often speak about government only in a terrible way. They don’t even realize it. But the people in this state surely hear nothing but bad things about the government from us, even though they can easily name many things government does that they support. Look no further than our 2014 platform, which says that government “preys on” its citizens. What a ridiculous image! Yes, the government can sometimes get in people’s way and tax them too much, and we should say so when that is the case. But we must avoid broad anti-government rhetoric that alienates people who want the government to do things.
Look no further than the Baker inauguration at the statehouse! It was a wondrous affair with many people there to celebrate the possibility of governing — even if some were celebrating the possibility of a little bit less governing. Nobody was there to cheer the downfall of the state bureaucracy. Yet, I regularly have Republican friends who will, in total seriousness, say to me, “Name one thing the government does well.” (The infamous Michael Graham once said that I couldn’t name one thing. Figuring that talking about government funding of important medical research was beyond his comprehension, I said, “Giving out parking tickets.” He admitted I was right.)
5. Prioritize the center over “the grassroots” for now
A constant refrain from Republicans is that the answer to our problems is to look to “the grassroots” to build the party.
And though there are some wonderful Republicans doing stuff locally, a great deal of our local work is unsuccessful, and often amateurish. Your typical Republican Town Committee meeting is probably not going to seem like a great investment of time for the kinds of professionals and parents we need to make the party stronger. Online, it is worse. I can’t tell you how often I have seen an RTC blog or social media post where they praise out-of-state conservatives who couldn’t get elected to dog catcher in this state. Here’s an example of total alienation from #mapoli from the front page of an RTC site from last year, with messaging that won’t work anywhere here:
RTCs can’t be outposts of political alienation, yet too many are. Why? It’s almost never driven by successful conservative officials in their town. It’s right-wing media telling them that success only comes though the conservative principles that they put forth.
Sometimes an organization must firm up the center, and other times, it needs ideas and energy from the periphery. Right now, we need to work harder at the center. Baker and the MassGOP strengthened our center when they improved our voter data file and created some campaign tools. We should do much more there. We should also establish best practices and other tools and make them available to everyone. (Brian Wynne is the guy to do this.)
We should also recognize that the town committee organizing model was developed for a different time and political landscape, when Republicans were found throughout the state. (Now, using the RTC model in places like the Berkshires makes no sense at all.) Yes, we must maintain that model legally, but we need all kinds of other organizational activities that unite people by profession, region, or skills. That all should be directed by the center of the party.
Once the center of the party is an effective hub to help Republicans statewide, we can then figure out what the best role is for local, grassroots work where it isn’t already working.
6. New terms of engagement in media and punditry
Charlie Baker, with his knowledge, respect, and stature, would be a valuable member of any political roundtable in the media. Yet I would have a hard time naming six other Republicans who are in the public square, getting attention for their smarts and ideas.
Unfortunately, over the past several years, Republican views have been largely missing in the world of respectable Massachusetts political commentary. No, I don’t mean it can’t be found, but that our leading journalism and non-profit organizations have either ignored Republican views, trivialized them, or featured someone who was a poor ambassador for us. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
What we need is a new class of pundits and activists who are willing to engage Democrats in the public square with respect for them and for government, and accept most of the settled positions on hot-button issues here. Also, they must be ready to put forth creative policy ideas that would be considered valuable to a majority of people. These advocates should certainly not be limited to the positions of Charlie Baker, but they should not be a well of ideas that Baker would reject out-of-hand. As for style, we need approaches that will gain the respect of all kinds of people. For example, I remember a time when a Democratic friend from Brookline told me, “But Ed, government is a good thing!” I paused, and then said with a smile, “But… you can have too much of a good thing.” And she laughed.
7. Engage in uncomfortable outreach
If there was one image that really stuck with me from the 2014 campaign, it was one from the Caribbean Day parade in Roxbury, Boston. Charlie Baker climbed a fence and brick wall to speak to minority voters watching from above.
All of us Republican reformers saw that picture and thought, “Yeah. That.” It was iconic, and the perfect metaphor for what we need to do as a party. Here is that picture, with one just before and after it.
If that isn’t the perfect metaphor for what we need to do as a party, nothing is.
We need to spend time in the cities. No, not just having a ward meeting of 12 people in a poorly-lit bar somewhere. We need to join non-profits. Do community service. Get to know people. Gain some credibility. If we want to socialize, we should attend events held by the many wonderful organizations that already exist. A few Republican activists are already doing this in organizations like The Urban League. Great!
It isn’t going to be comfortable being a Republican doing community work in places where our party isn’t well liked. But I know from doing occasional technology volunteer work in Boston: it is nice to be known as one of “the good Republicans” by people who have none as respected friends.
8. An enabling organization, not one that wants to run everything
To build on the last point, I believe we must become an enabling organization for other groups, not one that only looks inward. We should send ambassadors to other organizations. We should figure out how to raise money for initiatives that are in line with our views, but aren’t partisan at all. (Government transparency is a good example.) We should sponsor events that we agree with, but not seek to manage them.
So yes, we need to manage our own people and campaigns. But the Democrats are involved to varying degrees with a large number of organizations that do things they agree with. They gain expertise and new members through all these relationships. We need to do that also. Oh — just to be clear — I absolutely do not mean we need to partner with gun rights groups, the Tea Party, religious political groups, etc. We need to go talk to organizations that we don’t know, who would never consider themselves Republicans.
If I had to sum up my prescription, it would be that we need to define a new, Massachusetts Republican identity that is not limited to the 2014 campaign of Charlie Baker, but is complementary to it. We need to increase the breadth and depth of our citizenship in this state. We must travel throughout our Commonwealth and match our ideas and our energy to what a majority of citizens want from living here. We must not listen to people whose citizenship is derived from talk radio, Fox News, or other places outside of Massachusetts. They have, for too long, defined what it means to be Republican here. No more.
Lastly, Charlie Baker’s brief Twitter profile, until he won, included a characterization that nobody mentioned:
Son of Massachusetts.
That simple idea is probably the best place to begin in the quest to be the party of Charlie Baker.
Disclosures and Disclaimers
This piece was not aided or authorized by the Massachusetts Republican Party, Charlie Baker, or anyone who works for the Governor. I spoke to no one on his staff about this piece, nor provided it for review to them or anyone else. I was a member of the Baker Transition Team Committee for the month of December, but I did not disclose any non-public information about it, other than to say it was professional and productive. I am not speaking for the Transition Team in any way. My work there was completed at the end of December, before I wrote this entire essay on a whim, on the second weekend in January. I have no scheduled future official involvement with the MassGOP or Governor Baker going forward. The material in this piece is from public sources and my own ordinary experiences as a Republican in 2014. That is all.