Scott Brown's victory last Tuesday was probably the greatest political upset in recent memory. A Republican Party that was pronounced all but dead and an ideological movement that was said to have no appeal outside of Souther white guys was able to win Ted Kennedy's Senate seat based on the explicit disavowal of his greatest policy wish, a day before the one year anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration. While the result of the race was based mostly on a rejection of the Obama administration's health care plan, it is worth considering how much can be attributed to the state itself. It is more interesting than it would appear at first because, secretly, Massachusetts isn't quite as liberal as it used to be.
The Avant-Garde of American Liberalism
As late as the 1950s, Massachusetts' Congressional delegation was majority Republican. But what occurred over the past 100 years was a demographic transition where, over the course of decades, different areas of the state passed from a Yankee majority (and Republican) to an ethnic Catholic majority (and Democratic). This transition happened at the turn of the last century in Boston, in the Merrimack Valley in the 1910s, Worcester, Springfield, and other industrial cities during the New Deal, the South Shore and university areas in the 50s, and the North Shore, immediate Boston suburbs, and rural Yankeedom in the 1970s. The watershed year for the state overall was 1952, in which the Senate race pitted the top Yankee family, the Lodges, against the leading Irish Catholic family, the Kennedys. Old Yankee Massachusetts died when JFK was elected Senator.
The twin pillars upon which Massachusetts liberalism was constructed were the massive, impressive higher education system and the Kennedy family. Due to its strong commitment to education, Massachusetts had always been in the vanguard of promoting left-leaning change. But when the middle-class began to flood the higher education system following World War II, a critical mass of liberal college graduates was reached. These men and women transformed their old line Yankee communities towards embracing the culture of universities.
The Kennedys cast a longer shadow over Massachusetts than any other political dynasty in any other state ever. There's no need to go into the whole Kennedy legend here, but its real political effect was to put the white, ethnic working-class behind liberalism in a way that didn't develop anywhere else in America. While their long lost cousins were participating in Hard Hat riots and cheering on Archie Bunker, they lined up behind 60s liberalism. The only difference between the Boston Brahmins and Joe from Worcester was the locution by which they expressed the common liberal faith.
Beginning in the 1970s, Massachusetts was the most left-wing state in the nation. It was famous for being the only state to vote for the doomed George McGovern. From 1960 to 2004, there were 12 presidential elections. In those year Massachusetts ranked as the following in Democratic percentage of the vote: 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 22nd (John Anderson won 15 percent, his best state; was Reagan's 3rd worst state), 2nd, 4th, 6th, 1st, 3rd, 1st. In this time, three Bay Staters were the Democratic standard bearer.
The level of success Republicans had at the governor's level paradoxically was damaging because it wedded them to an outdated Rockefeller / small-town Yankee hybrid Republicanism instead of a Northeastern middle-class conservatism. It seemed impressive that William Weld won election twice, until you consider that he ran to the left of his 1990 opponent. Weld even won Cambridge, which gave Coakley over 84 percent of the vote. The conservative-moderate coalition that would represent the most viable way for a center-right candidate to win did not form, leaving the party with a shallow base.
When revulsion with the Gingrich-era Republican Party hit in the mid-90s, Rockefeller Republicanism was finished, with no suburban / working-class conservative element waiting in the wings. This led to a crippled party with no Congressional seats and a veto-proof Democratic majority in the state legislature. Thus, the Republican governor wasn't that effective as a break on liberal policies. This led to another decade of Massachusetts leading liberalism their way. Republican registration dropped to between 10-15 percent of the voter population.
Signs of Change
However, Massachusetts is not as liberal as it used to be, at least in comparison to other states. In an age when liberalism is identified with youth and minorities, Massachusetts is a relatively old and white state. The Scott Brown triumph was presaged by the Jim Ogonowski campaign in 2007. In a very bad politcal climate, Ogonowski came within six points of winning a Congressional seat. It's easy to imagine he would've won in better times for Republicans. In 2008, despite the Kennedy clan essentially appointing Obama as their heir, Hillary Clinton won the state's Democratic primary by 15 points. Come general election time, Massachusetts fell to only the 8th best Obama state. While Kerry was a native, it was very interesting to see no Democratic trend during four years of strong Democratic electoral success.
There are encouraging signs that slowly--very slowly, control of the party is being wrested from 'me-too' bluebloods to moderate conservatives. Every statewide winner in the past twenty years has been a shade more to the right of their predecessor. Paul Cellucci was more conservative than Weld, Romney was more conservative than Cellucci, and Brown ran as more conservative than the Massachusetts Mitt. It is striking how conservative a platform Brown ran on. His two main themes were explicit oppositon to Obamacare and taking strong measures against terrorism. His success means that there is no reason for any Massachusetts Republican to shy away from taking conservative stands on these issues.
Scott Brown's election may be nearly as important in ending the Kennedy mythology as in damaging health care reform. The end of the Kennedy legend means that the electorate can finally adapt to modern left / right politics. The amount of middle-class and lower middle-class whites who are Democrats is unnatural based on current party demographics. Shifting these voters over to the right would finally secure the GOP on a firm base. Massachusetts would remain a definite blue state, but it wouldn't be as overwhelmingly Democrat. It would look more like Connecticut than Vermont.
One useful measure of the results map is to figure out where Republicans can't win. If Brown couldn't do reasonably well in an area, then no Republican has a shot. Coakley ran not much behind 2008 levels in the Berkshires and the immediate Boston area. These areas are dominated by ideologically committed white liberals. They are unwinnable for a center-right party.
Brown's bases of support were in the center of the state, and the North and South Shores. In MA-5, in which Ogonowski nearly won, Brown won every single city and town. The district revolves around old industrial cities like Lowell and Lawrence and outer suburbs of Boston of the type that were strong Brown boosters. Hopefully Republicans look into challenging Tsongas once again.
The Worcester area holds promise. The second city is much more centrist than Boston. Brown earned over 47 percent of the vote in the City of Worcester. He then ran up huge percentages in the surrounding towns and countryside. This is an area more engaged in industry and small business than high-prestige jobs. The type of voters Republicans need to convert to full time Republicans are heavily concentrated here.
The South Shore was Brown's best area in the state. It is the most Irish part of the most Irish of states. It contains a large middle-class with blue-collar values even if most are not blue-collar themselves. The receding legacy of the Kennedy family could free these voters up to become relatively Republican. The 10th district, based on the South Shore, was likely Brown's best Congressional district. The district has a PVI of D+5, the most favorable in the state.
i think there is some hope for conservatives in the state. You can't over-interpret the results and declare Massachusetts competitive. This really was a perfect storm of very favorable national conditions, a very good Republican candidate, and perhaps the worst major campaign in modern times for the Democrat. But the victory nonetheless reveals a way forward for conservatives within a state that had been permanently written off by Republicans. It is realistic to believe that a solid center-right candidate can win in some places. The camapign showed that there is little penalty, and a lot more to gain, by running somewhat more to the right of previous Massachusetts Republicans (but not too far right). The task now is to build on this potential breakthrough and expand the reach of the party.