Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rampant MA Party Optimism

This week another in the remarkable Suffolk's Rappaport Center series had machers from the two major MA parties on stage. It sort of fulfilled the teaser of lessons learned from the campaign trail. There were s few insights, many laughs, and a strong promise of better battles in the works.

Big of body and voice, Dem party chair John Walsh (left) delivered the best lines, got the loudest laughs, and seemed most in touch with reality. His GOP counterpart, Jennifer Nassour (right), seemed plenty bright, reasonably candid, and buoyed by both the January Scott Brown win and a solid increase in local office and MA House seats.

Each was backed up by a major strategist. For Walsh, it was Sydney Asbury, Gov. Deval Patrick's deputy chief of staff, and a key campaign player. For Nassour, it was Robert Willington, who did strategy and web for Brown's campaign from his Swiftcurrent Strategies. He was also former exec of the MA GOP.

The hour-plus was refreshingly candid, if fairly shallow. The two moderators,reporters Scott Helman from the Globe and Alison King from NECN, kind of got in the way. They had a few idées fixe, which they kept revisiting, and sometimes seemed shills for the GOP. In the main though, Walsh and Nassour carried the session back to meaningful comments.

Flensed to the skeleton, the session dig get down to the apparent contradiction. How could a Republican snatch Ted Kennedy's seat in January and then the GOP lose all statewide elections 10 months later?

Walsh was plain about the Brown victory/Dem loss. He said he felt "a personal responsibility for losing Ted Kennedy's seat." He noted that Martha Coakley only came about 5% short, but "it felt like a much bigger loss."

He admitted that this caused considerable soul searching by his party. As Brown's margin mirrored Presidential candidate John McCain's loss, Walsh said, "What Scott Brown got credit for in my book is motivating voters to the polls." He added that Brown's campaign won the "coffee shops...parking lots...neighbors across the fence." Walsh concluded that this was "very annoying because it our (Dems') game."

The lesson here was an obvious one, according to Asbury. She said they told their grassroots organizers, "We couldn't be complacent." She noted both that Brown's January win "shook Democrats in Massachusetts," and that "it was an effective tool for us." MA Dems became focused on getting out their voters in the fall, as Brown had done.

So by this past fall, even knowing of the voter unrest with incumbents and the status quo, the MA Dems were ready. The GOP here did almost double their MA House total from 16 to 31 (of 160) and won some local elections. However, they failed in attacks on all statewide offices, including Governor, lost an MA Senate seat (from 6 to 5 of 40), and were unable to win any U.S. House races. That was in stark contrast to the national results with huge Republican gains.

Still, Nassour managed to keep her post easily among anguished, angry cries of party members. Many found gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker as a great bet for the office. She took the unusual step of writing to the state committee, reminding them of the MA GOP advances in numbers, fund-raising and candidate preparation during his tenure. "Don't give up on us," was the phrase there and in places like an interview with the Herald. She easily won re-election.

At Suffolk, she talked up what seemed like very conventional wisdom for the broad losses in November. She repeatedly cited the power of incumbency and name recognition. She also liked personality and campaign style, as well as hints of if only the GOP had more money. She added that Baker did not have as much money early and spend much of his time on over 500 fund raisers. She contended that had he started earlier and had more money, he could have won and "pulled a lot" of other statewide candidates along with him.

Run your own damn campaign!

We here are aware that MA likes to mix up its governors, throwing in Republican administrations evenly, under the rubric that somehow that would balance an overwhelming Dem legislature. That conveniently ignores the fairly large percentage of DINO lawmakers in the mix. We also have a little over half of our voters unenrolled, belonging to no party. Many of these loudly proclaim they are independents, as though party members were relatively mindless. That makes forecasting vote casting all the more exciting.

Yet, come last November, the GOP did not replicate the Brown win by taking the Governor's office from Patrick. Despite extraordinarily strong commonwealth and national discontent with incumbents, it was Patrick 48%, Baker42%, and Cahill about 10%. So much of the Suffolk session was on how the devil could that have happened?

Nassour had a fascinating cut on that, saying that Patrick was a much better campaigner than governor and Baker woulda, coulda, shoulda been the opposite. The moderators fed into that with one of their beloved ideas, that Baker was cast unfairly as the mean, angry candidate in contrast to Patrick's gracious and pleasant one. Willington jumped in with his beer buddy analogy. He knows Baker, finds him personable and would rather have a beer with him than Patrick. He belabored that for a few examples.

"The beer factor," Willington added, "is a powerful part of politics." He thought a candidate's personality and approachable nature (or not) swayed voters.

Walsh didn't really buy into that. As he put it, "It's a mistake in campaigns to focus overly on personality." Instead, he thought voters were more likely impressed as he had been by Patrick's candor and consistency. He said from the first time he met Patrick, "he said what he believes." While many pundits and strategists might advise against too much frankness, he said it has worked for Patrick, even when he announced that he had raised taxes and what benefits the public would get from them. "He absolutely proved that you can run a campaign on what you believe," said Walsh.

Several on stage said that certainly part of Brown's appeal is that he seems like a likable guy. There was a fair consensus that personality had been huge here. One person didn't quite buy into this. Near the end of the event, Walsh put forth the clear perspective he took away from the wins and losses of the past year. As he put it, "Run your own damn campaign! Don't spend your time thinking about the other guy. Don't take too many lessons from the last one."

Yet Baker had his own baggage. Those on the show did not mention his association with brutal head chopping of employees at Harvard Pilgrim as well as huge premium jumps in his time there. They did get into the Big Dig issue. He downplayed his key roll in the disastrous financing of it and the lack of communication to the public, those who still pay the bills. I am among the many wondering how his campaign might have gone if he had not tried to claim he was a great manager and financial expert, while ignoring what seem like such major problems.

The moderators seemed more consumed with independent gubernatorial Cahill. They plainly felt Baker's campaign had spent far too much effort and money to drive him from the race, unsuccessfully. Nassour disagreed, saying the party was convinced that Baker could not win with him in the contest, while Asbury noted that as Cahill's support waned, the voters pretty much evenly divided their support among Baker and Patrick.

Nassour strongly felt that minimizing Cahill's influence was the right strategy. As she put it, "Time Cahill was not the third wheel. He was a flat tire."

This campaign led to another moderator's idée fixe. Both kept returning to what they clearly had discussed before the session started — a conceit that Patrick is only trying to implement policies that Baker created and pitched in the race.

Walsh and Asbury both were calm in rebutting the contention, but that did not seem to do it for Helman and King. The moderators cited such actions as getting municipalities to reduce health costs by joining the state plan, replacing private attorneys with state ones as public defenders, and reducing the number of state employees. As King put it, "These are really all ideas that Charlie Baker put out front." Later Helman tried to revivify this with questions like, "Was there a disconnect between what Gov. Patrick was campaigning on and what he's petting forward."

Asbury was clearest in returning a few times to disagree. She noted that many of the proposals Baker has made were picking up those already advanced publicly from his office and to the legislature by Patrick. I was a bit surprised she didn't add that it would be fairer to ask whether Baker had simply lifted the governor's ideas and advanced them as his own.

In addressing particulars the moderators advanced, she gave a nice insight into the daily operation of the administration. She said Patrick's second administration has been consistent in advancing just four priorities:
  • Jobs
  • Lowering health costs
  • Youth violence
  • Education
According to Asbury, "every day I would say he'd drive into all of us who are working for him that if it doesn't relate to those four priorities, why are we talking about this?"

Shields up! Arm phasers!

Both sides said they were determined to use all grassroots efforts, including social and other digital media in addition to traditional methods. Also, Asbury noted that a lesson she had learned was that it was crucial to start as early as possible to keep volunteers both engaged and informed.

In response to future plays by Tea Party members and other anti-incumbent types, those on stage said they would be a factor. Willinton for one was quick to note that while Brown has voted with Dems on some issues, the T Party sorts know that overall he was much more to their mindset than Coakley would have been as Senator. "For the most part, Tea Party/center-right people have been pretty supportive," he said.

Walsh did not think their emergence in MA was anything new or that remarkable. He may have gotten the biggest laugh of the afternoon with, "I'm from Plymouth County. We've these crazy people have always been here. We just gave them a name."

For futures, Nassour's optimism is palpable. In addition to the local and legislative seats won, she points to the current GOP volunteer activity. On Saturday before this session, nearly 500 party volunteers met to organize. She thought that was impressive on a bad-weather weekend in a state where they are outnumbered by Dems three to one. Walsh didn't seem worried. He noted that the same weekend over 5,000 from his party met in over 200 caucuses. Another 350 more caucuses are about to follow for his party.

During the session, some questions hung in the air, such as what they expect to happen with the loss of a U.S. House seat. I didn't get to ask Nassour how she said incumbency was the huge factor, yet how was it that her party lost the rare open statewide offices of Treasurer and Auditor.

The cheery takeaway for us political sorts was also from Walsh. He cited the enthusiasm of the Republicans, the drive of Dems to hold on to or expand their power, and the continued pressure of the anti-incumbent voter contingent. "For people who love politics, 2012 is going to be a great year.".

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Harmony said...

Great read, thanks for the run-down!!

massmarrier said...

They do a fabulous job with their political presentations there. I was wired for the Women in Politics coming up, but they bumped it from 2/16 to 4/6 and I can't attend the new date. I do recommend hitting as many of these as you can.

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