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Road to nowhere
Why Romney’s Republicans are doomed, and why the governor doesn’t care

CONFUSED ABOUT the Massachusetts Republican Party’s prospects in the upcoming legislative elections? Don’t worry. So is the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Five months ago, when Mitt Romney stood on stage at the Parker House to introduce his "Reform Team," the 131 Republican candidates were feted like conquering heroes. As confetti exploded and classic rock blared, Romney beamed like a proud parent. "I have been looking forward to this day for a long, long time," he declared.

Since then, the buzz around the governor’s recruits has diminished. A lot. In mid September, Alex Dunn, Romney’s political director, said he regarded only 24 to 30 of the upcoming legislative races as competitive. And at a rally ostensibly aimed at hyping the Republican legislative slate, Romney told reporters he would be happy just to pick up a single seat. (Republicans currently hold seven of the 40 seats in the Massachusetts Senate, and 22 of the 160 in the House — in both chambers, not nearly enough to sustain gubernatorial vetoes.)

Last week, Romney’s pessimism deepened. After joining Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster on the State House steps to unveil a GO SOX! banner, Romney warned that Republicans might lose a legislator or two when the votes were in. "We have four people retiring as Republicans," he said. "Under normal circumstances, we’d end up losing four seats. We hope to keep it level or maybe add a couple of seats." Our dependably earnest governor then segued into an upbeat analogy. "One thing I know is, if you don’t swing hard, you’re not gonna have any hits," he said. "We’re gonna fight real hard, win or lose." But instead of spending last weekend working the Republican hustings in Massachusetts, Romney was off to Nevada, Oklahoma, and Iowa to stump for President Bush.

Taken together, this breathtaking drop in expectations and Romney’s apparent nonchalance raise some interesting questions. Did Romney truly think the "Reform Team" was a big deal back in May, or was he just after a good photo op? After raising approximately $3 million for the current election cycle, and getting all the buzz it could have asked for, will the Massachusetts Republican Party really be satisfied with just breaking even? And if — as some political pundits suggest — Romney’s political prestige is truly on the line, why does he seem so utterly unconcerned?

IF THE MASS GOP flops on Election Day, it won’t be the first time Romney has talked big and failed to deliver. Remember the $2 billion in waste and inefficiency Romney told voters he’d identified in state government during the gubernatorial campaign? Turns out that was either an embarrassing overestimate or a cynical ploy. Then there was the governor’s decision to scrap the state’s affirmative-action framework, which he promptly reversed when the political pressure became too intense. And whatever happened to Romney’s much-ballyhooed quest for an infallible death penalty, which seems simply to have faded away?

To be fair, much has changed since the Republicans began assembling their legislative slate last year. Back in 2003, Romney’s favorable ratings were pushing 60 percent; House Speaker Tom Finneran was still a dominant force; Senate president Robert Travaglini had hinted the legislature might need to consider raising the state income tax; and Massachusetts senator John Kerry was a walking case study in how not to run for president. Today, as one Republican operative points out, Romney’s favorable rating has fallen from 61 to 54 percent. Furthermore, "Finneran is gone. Travaglini’s not talking about tax hikes. And Kerry came back and won [the Democratic nomination]."

Indeed he did. And Massachusetts Republicans can only dream of what might have been if a different presidential race had materialized. That Massachusetts would go Democratic was never in doubt. But if, say, John Edwards had emerged as the nominee and was running poorly, turnout here might have been low. With a home-state senator pushing Bush to the limit, though, Massachusetts Democrats are likely to turn out in huge numbers. And while there’s sure to be some ticket-splitting, there probably won’t be enough for the Republicans to make significant gains on Beacon Hill.

Huge as the Kerry effect may be, however, Romney can’t use it as a blanket excuse. Kerry’s revival took place four months before the over-the-top spectacle at the Park Plaza. And Romney helped diminish his own popularity by embracing the role of Bush’s anti-Kerry attack dog so eagerly. The fact is, Romney and his surrogates wouldn’t be scrambling to lower expectations today if they hadn’t inflated them in the first place.

Not surprisingly, plenty of Democrats are enjoying watching them squirm. "Basically, what he wants is not to be judged on the people he rolled out on that big day," says Michael Goldman, a former Democratic consultant who co-hosts the Simply Put radio program for Bloomberg News. "I think he bought the idea that he was the most popular person in the state, and that the minute the public heard that Mitt wanted it, they would fall in line. But there’s a reason why [former Republican governors] Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci and even Jane Swift didn’t get involved in this stuff — they didn’t want to lose the political capital they had in running and losing races. What he’s done here, I think, is to ultimately embarrass himself and the party."

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Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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