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Romney flexes his muscle

Last Tuesday, Mitt Romney achieved what may be his most impressive victory in 15 months as governor. In a special election for the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex state Senate seat formerly held by Cheryl Jacques, voters from a dozen communities to the west and south of Boston, including Needham, Sherborn, Plainville, and parts of Wellesley and Natick, opted for Romney’s candidate of choice, State Representative Scott Brown, over Democrat Angus McQuilken, Jacques’s former chief of staff. The margin of victory was slim, with Brown triumphing by a mere 291 votes. (Final election totals still must be certified by the state.)

But Brown won despite the fact that the special election took place on the same day as the state’s presidential primary, which most political observers assumed would bring more Democrats than Republicans to the polls and give McQuilken a handy victory. He won even though McQuilken received an early and effusive endorsement from Jacques, who had held the seat since 1992. And he did so in large part thanks to Romney, who gave money to Brown, campaigned with him, and sang his praises in a televised campaign commercial. In mobilizing his own political clout to pave the way for Brown to replace Jacques, Romney edged one Republican senator closer — bringing the total to seven — to the 14 he needs to sustain a Senate veto. More important, the governor showed that Republican legislative candidates can prevail in races the conventional wisdom says will be won by Democrats — and this, in turn, will give Romney and the state Republican Party plenty of momentum as they roll out more than 100 legislative campaigns aimed at eroding the Democrats’ substantial majority in the state legislature.

By 10:45 p.m., a beaming Romney stood at the center of a makeshift stage at Brown’s victory party, held at the swank Wrentham restaurant and banquet hall Luciano’s Lake Pearl. The governor was flanked by Brown, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, members of Brown’s family, and Republican legislators, including state Senator Jo Ann Sprague. After the final notes of Bruce Springsteen’s "Glory Days" had faded away, Romney — instead of allowing Brown to claim official victory — claimed it for him. "One hundred percent of the precincts are in; the numbers have been counted, they have been reviewed; and the distance between the winner and the loser in this campaign is 291 votes," he declared. The crowd went wild. "I am proud to announce that the next senator into the Massachusetts Senate is none other than Senator Scott Brown." As Romney yielded center stage to Brown, the assemblage went nuts again. Then Brown, a National Guardsman and former Cosmopolitan centerfold who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Romney, offered his gloss on the outcome, which amounted to a variation on the same script he’d used on the campaign trail. "The people have spoken here tonight," Brown said. "They want reform, they want change, they don’t want business as usual. That’s very, very clear, and we sent a strong message tonight."

The state’s Democratic heavyweights were quick to put the outcome in the best light possible. At McQuilken’s post-election party in Millis, Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston did what he could to look on the bright side. "This was essentially a 50-50 race, and it could have gone either way," Johnston argued. "Romney did better here than in any other Senate district in the state; he got 58 percent of the vote here. [The Republicans] poured money into this race.... If Angus had lost by 10 points or by five points, I’d say, ‘Look, we’re very disappointed.’ I don’t think [McQuilken] should be disappointed.... Given the fact that Romney spent a lot of personal time here, he’s very popular in this district, they poured money in here, I think Angus should feel very proud of how well he did." Then, he suggested that McQuilken attempt to unseat Brown in this fall’s general election. "I think he should keep running," Johnston said. "And I think with John Kerry at the head of the ticket in November that we can take this seat back."

As of Wednesday morning, McQuilken hadn’t yet decided if he would seek a recount or run again in November. But he did say the results were not unexpected: "We knew all along this was going to be a close race, with the governor pouring in so much money for my opponent. So we were not surprised that it was close."

Although the race had been seen as a referendum on the gay-marriage question — Brown voted in favor of two amendments at last month’s constitutional convention that would have barred lesbian and gay couples from marrying; McQuilken favors civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples — it was not the issue at the top of voters’ minds (see "Race Consciousness," News and Features, February 27). And State Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge, who attended McQuilken’s party, insisted that the race was anything but a harbinger of how voters feel about gay marriage. "The sense was that gay marriage was the huge issue, but gay marriage wasn’t the huge issue," he said, noting that that spin on the race was a media-made phenomenon. "Republicans were voting on Romney’s reform and Democrats were voting on jobs."

Either way, Tuesday’s results point to an interesting autumn.

Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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