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Life of the party (continued)

THEN, OF COURSE, there’s the question of how to deconstruct McQuilken’s failed candidacy. Some Democratic insiders say blame begins and ends with the candidate, who alienated several Democratic legislators while serving as former senator Cheryl Jacques’s chief of staff and was an awkward, uncharismatic campaigner. One Democratic heavyweight pans his candidacy as "truly weak."

Others, however, insist the state Democratic Party deserves some measure of blame as well, both for the downward spiral of McQuilken’s candidacy and for letting Romney spin Brown’s win as a breakthrough. One Democratic insider suggests the party erred by not taking control of McQuilken’s run once his deficiencies as a candidate emerged. "The party should be in a position where they have the authority, in that race, to come in and say, ‘Okay, Angus, you’re the candidate, we’re taking over the campaign," he argues. "Which is essentially what Romney did with Brown: ‘Brown, you look nice — keep smiling. We’re going to provide all the materials, we’re going to do your ads, we’re going to develop the strategy, and then we’re going to execute it.’"

Another Democratic insider says the party could have framed McQuilken as a long-shot candidate by citing the district’s overwhelming support of Republican candidates in recent gubernatorial elections. Instead, the Republicans successfully cast Brown as the underdog. "I cannot believe what a bad job the state party did in making people understand that race," he says. "The mistake that was made was in allowing the governor to make the case that this was a great example of the potential for Republicans in 2004."

Johnston dismisses these complaints. He notes, for example, that the state party connected McQuilken with the services of Democratic consultant Matt O’Neill, and hints that the campaign failed to capitalize on this arrangement. "They accepted some of his advice and rejected some of his advice, let’s put it that way," Johnston says. "[McQuilken] had his message, and he has to take responsibility for it." He adds that the state party stressed the Republican-friendly nature of the contested district from the outset. "We always said that," Johnston says. "Every reporter I talked to during the whole thing, I pointed out the fact that Cheryl [Jacques] was the first Democrat ever elected.... I grew up in that district, and I know it well."

McQuilken, of course, was an untested candidate running against an elected officeholder. That’s one reason Team Romney may not succeed in "McQuilkening" a large number of incumbent Democrats in November. Johnston also argues that Democratic legislative candidates are likely to benefit from Massachusetts senator John Kerry’s topping the Democratic presidential ticket — especially given Al Gore’s 60 percent to 33 percent defeat of George W. Bush in Massachusetts four years ago. While Johnston insists he’s taking the looming Republican legislative push seriously, he likes the Democrats’ chances. "There is intense anger at the grassroots level about Romney and what’s happening in state government in terms of human services and the cutbacks to poor people," Johnston says. For the Democrats, Kerry’s candidacy is an added bonus. "They’ve got to watch out," he says of Romney and the state GOP. "They didn’t plan on Kerry being on the top of the ticket. Nor did the White House. So we’re going to have a huge Democratic vote here in November." (Then again, wasn’t Democratic turnout for a contested presidential primary supposed to propel McQuilken to victory?)

Dukakis adds that Kerry’s run is a golden opportunity to chase away whatever doldrums may afflict the Massachusetts Democratic Party at the grassroots level. "I think it lays the groundwork for an army of folks to really go out and walk the streets and bang on doors and do all kinds of things that can really make an enormous difference," he says. "Every time you have an intense contest, you want to go out and enlist lots and lots of young people in what, in my opinion, can and must be a very broad-based grassroots effort. And if you do that, you’re not only going to do well in the election you’re talking about, but there will be a substantial number of those young people who will be hooked for life. That’s what happened with me [in 1982], and that’s what ought to happen this time, because this is a Massachusetts guy.... Shame on us if we can’t take advantage of it."

Even if they can, a bigger problem will remain — namely, the ideological heterogeneity of Democrats in Massachusetts. Given the massive range of fiscal and social views represented inside the party, it’s long been difficult to say what, exactly, being a Massachusetts Democrat means. This vagueness has been brought to the fore recently by Democratic disagreements over gay marriage and by the remarkable ability of the state’s Republicans to hew to the same script, with legislators, candidates, and state-party officials often speaking words that seem to have issued straight from the Mind of Romney. True, Romney and Senate minority leader Brian Lees differ markedly on gay marriage. But that discrepancy pales in comparison to internal conflicts on the Democratic side. Consider this: the Democratic State Committee recently voted to back gay marriage, but House Speaker Tom Finneran — arguably the most powerful Democrat in Massachusetts — is the most influential gay-marriage opponent at the ongoing Constitutional Convention. Consider also that if legislative Democrats hewed to the state-party line on gay marriage, there would be no chance of passing an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment.

After Romney’s 2002 victory, a Democratic commission was formed to tighten up the state party’s message. The body held public hearings across the state; according to State Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge — one of the commission’s leaders — the group hopes to issue its findings prior to this May’s Democratic state convention. But this endeavor alone is unlikely to bridge the vast ideological chasms within the party. Democratic insiders may quip about "Mini-Mitts" or how Romney’s planning to "send in the clones," but it’s clear some of them envy the Republicans’ cohesion. "We hold up the idea of the big tent, and rightly so, as an incredible goal," Democratic consultant Michael Goldman says. "But continually, the party has this problem where, ideologically, the party doesn’t always see eye to eye with candidates. There is one voice in the Republican Party, there is one face in the Republican Party, there is one consistent message in the Republican Party."

After all the votes are counted this fall, Romney and the Republicans may gain only a handful of legislative seats, if that. But even if every Democratic House and Senate candidate rides Kerry’s coattails to victory come November, Johnston and the other leaders of the Massachusetts Democratic Party face a daunting task. In 1984, 48.5 percent of Massachusetts voters were registered Democrats; today, that number has fallen to 36.1 percent. Meanwhile, 49.8 percent identify as independents. If the Massachusetts Democratic Party can’t reinvigorate itself — or figure out what it stands for — those independents might be drawn in increasing numbers to the enticingly tidy script of Romney et al. After all, in the Senate district the Democrats just lost to the Republicans, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 23 percent to 19 percent. But at 58 percent, unenrolled voters trump both of them put together. It’s time, in short, to stop taking long-term Democratic dominance for granted in Massachusetts.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com

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Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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