Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans who’ve won statewide elections in the state over the last two decades – Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney – all relied on the same basic formula. But that’s not really true.
Yes, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney all positioned themselves as fiscal conservatives with libertarian cultural instincts and promised to serve as a check on the Democrats’ Beacon Hill monopoly. But they each appealed to very different parts of the state. In effect, there are three different models for a Republican victory in Massachusetts. Here’s a look at each one:
NOTE: I’ve excluded third party candidates (none of whom tallied more than three percent of the statewide vote) from each of these examples in order to measure the Democratic and Republican candidates head-to-head.
1990 gubernatorial election
William F. Weld (R) – 51.67%
John R. Silber (D) – 48.33%
Weld was elected governor in 1990 and re-elected in 1994. His ’94 victory was so thorough (a record-setting 42-point thrashing of then-state Rep. Mark Roosevelt in which Weld carried 349 of the state’s 352 cities and towns) that it’s not really worth considering. But the formula from 1990, when Weld bested Boston University President John Silber by four points to break the Democrats’ 16-year grip on the State House, is.
In winning that race, Weld assembled a coalition that would now be unthinkable for a Republican in Massachusetts, beating the Democratic nominee in some of the state’s most liberal communities. Weld’s own cultural liberalism (as governor, a national gay magazine hailed him as the most pro-gay governor of either party in the country) had something to do with this.
But the bigger factor was Silber, one of the most conservative candidates ever nominated by the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Silber’s provocative (to put it mildly) rhetoric on abortion, homosexuality, the environment, end-of-life care (“When you’ve lived a long life and you’re ripe, it’s time to go”) and countless other issues enraged liberals (who had backed former Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti in the primary).
There were two specific keys to Weld’s triumph:
1) He beat Silber in the more affluent, educated liberal bastions around Boston: Cambridge, Brookline, Newton, Arlington, and Watertown, among others. And he carried the most liberal towns in Western Massachusetts as well – Amherst and Northampton. The idea of a Republican even coming close in any of these towns today is virtually unthinkable, testimony to how loathed Silber was by the left.
2) He contained the damage in most traditionally-Democratic cities by rallying female voters who found Silber too reactionary. For instance, Weld lost Lowell (population 105,000) by just 3,000 votes; Lawrence (pop. 70,000) by just 2,000; and Brockton (pop. 90,000) by just over 200 votes. Democratic candidates rely on large pluralities in these cities. Silber’s only urban landslides came on the South Coast (Fall River and New Bedford) and in Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, where the demographics were more favorable to his cultural conservatism.
1998 gubernatorial election
Argeo “Paul” Cellucci (R) – 51.74%
Luther Scott Harshbarger (D) – 48.26%
Cellucci, a state legislator from a working-class town (Hudson) closer to Worcester than to Boston, inherited the governorship when a bored Weld walked out in the summer of 1997. He secured the GOP nomination for a full term in 1998 (beating state Treasurer Joe Malone in a contentious primary) and was opposed in the general election by L. Scott Harshbarger, the state’s two-term attorney general.
In November, Cellucci won almost exactly the same share of the vote as Weld had in ’90 – just shy of 51 percent. But he essentially reversed his old boss’ formula.
In the liberal, affluent communities around Boston, Harshbarger – a good government-type who made campaign finance reform a central issue in his campaign (and who later served as the national president of Common Cause) – reasserted his party’s traditional strength. In Cambridge, for instance, Harshbarger crushed Cellucci by more than 50 points; Weld had beat Silber there by 13. This chart shows the communities in which Cellucci’s performance dropped off most significantly from Weld’s; just about all of them are liberal bastions.
Where Cellucci did his damage was in the state’s working-class cities. In Worcester (pop. 160,000), Cellucci essentially battled Harshbarger to a tie; Weld had lost the city by nearly 20 points. In Lowell, he won. And in Fall River, he slashed what had been a 47-point loss for Weld in ’98 to just 16 points. Cellucci was able to pull this off because much of the old-guard Democratic establishment – labor leaders, mayors and many state legislators – didn’t like or trust Harshbarger, who as A.G. had pursued cases against numerous entrenched Democrats.
Cellucci, by contrast, had a reputation as a non-ideologue who was happy to make a deal. A fair number of Democrats actually endorsed Cellucci. Many others – like Boston Mayor Thomas Menino – helped him by not lifting a finger for Harshbarger. Cellucci’s Italian lineage and working-class image probably lifted him in urban areas as well.
The next chart shows the communities where Cellucci most significantly improved on Weld’s performance. They are all working-class communities. (Note: Cellucci’s running-mate, Jane Swift, was from North Adams; and Cellucci represented Marlborough as a state senator in the 1980s.)
2002 gubernatorial election
Willard “Mitt” Romney (R) – 52.55%
Shannon P. O’Brien (D) – 47.45%
Romney, who had failed in a 1994 bid to unseat Ted Kennedy, returned to the state from his stint running the Winter Olympics in Utah and immediately pushed unpopular Acting Governor Jane Swift (who had assumed the top job when Cellucci quit in early 2001 to be ambassador to Canada) aside. He faced state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who was seeking to become the state’s first female governor, in the general election.
O’Brien led for much of the fall campaign, but Romney gained traction late by bluntly pitching himself as safeguard against “the gang of three” – O’Brien and the state’s unpopular Democratic legislative leaders. This essentially triggered a suburban revolt, with voters in mid-size communities outside of Boston, on the South Shore and between Interstates 128 and 495 flocking to Romney.
A late flap over abortion, in which O’Brien – in an attempt to cast doubt on the sincerity of Romney’s pro-choice position – declared her opposition to parental consent laws, also seemed to boost Romney in the state’s smaller, culturally conservative cities. She also endorsed gay marriage, then two years away from arriving in Massachusetts via court order. This seemed to lift Romney in the state’s smaller, culturally conservative cities. He ended up carrying nearly 40 percent of the urban vote.
The charts below show where Romney’s performance improved most significantly over Weld’s and Cellucci’s. Bedroom communities were the backbone of Romney’s surge. (Note: Belmont was Romney’s hometown, explaining much of his strength there.)