Are RI Republicans listening?

Nov 9, 2012

From the White House to the State House, Republicans were blown out last week. RIPR political analyst  Scott MacKay on what’s next for the beleaguered Rhode Island GOP.

As 2012 spills into 2013, the Rhode Island political trend worth watching is how Republicans deal with the drubbing their party took at almost every level. Republicans actually lost state House and Senate seats and were crushed in elections for U.S. Senate and House. You have to go back to the mid-1970s to find a time when no Republican served in either statewide or federal office.

The biggest election surprise to many was the beating Republican Brendan Doherty took at the hands of incumbent Democrat David Cicilline in Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District. Doherty did some good things- he raised a competitive amount of money and worked very hard. But he was a rookie running his first campaign for any office and it showed. He did not have a nuanced handle on the big issues that face the nation. He spoke more in slogans than solutions. Doherty’s anti-immigrant stances rubbed Rhode Island’s emerging Latino voters the wrong way. And women did not trust him on issues they hold dear, including who has control of the uterus.

Yet, try as he might, the label that Doherty couldn’t shed was the word `Republican,’ that appeared next to his name on the ballot.

The Republican brand has become so tarnished in New England, ancestral home to moderate Republicanism, that none  from our region will serve in the U.S. House come January. In Massachusetts, Scott Brown posed as a moderate, but voters saw through his rhetoric and comfortably elected Democrat Elizabeth Warren to the Senate seat once held by  liberal lion Ted Kennedy.

A Republican Party dominated by southern-style white male resentment and the Tea Party isn’t going to be successful in New England. Brown thought he could defeat Warren by spitting `perfessor’ at her during debates, as if being a Harvard professor was something elitist and to be ashamed of. Are there really any working class parents in the Bay State  who wouldn’t be proud to have a son or daughter grow up to be an Ivy League professor?

Rhode Island Republicans love to blame down ballot losses in a presidential year on the so-called master lever, a relic of mid-20th Century machine politics. By checking a single box on the ballot, Rhode Island voters can vote the straight party.

Yet, despite the master lever, Rhode Island political history is replete with voters splitting tickets. In 1964, Democrat Lyndon Johnson won a presidential landslide while Republican John Chafee was easily chosen governor. Richard Nixon was Rhode Island Republican choice for president in 1972, the same year Democrat Claiborne Pell was reelected senator. In 1988, our state supported Democrat Mike Dukakis for president and Republican Claudine Schneider for U.S. House. The 2000 election saw Rhode Island strongly backing Democrat Al Gore for president while sending then-Republican Linc Chafee to the U.S. Senate. And in 2006, Republican Don Carcieri was reelected governor and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse won for U.S. Senate.

Maybe Republicans ought to go back to the future. When Republicans have been successful in Rhode Island, it was with moderate candidates. And women. Has the GOP forgotten that it forged statewide and federal victories with such candidates as Schneider, State General Treasurer Nancy Mayer, former Secretary of State Barbara Leonard and Secretary of State Susan Farmer, who in 1982 became the first women to capture a statewide office.

With Warren’s victory and New Hampshire’s electing an all-female Congressional delegation and woman governor, Rhode Island now has the sad distinction as the only New England state that has never elected a woman to either U.S. Senate or the governorship. Maybe Republicans could put an emphasis on recruiting more women for office; after all they only make up half the population.

Another nod to the demographic reality of the 21st Century would be an end to the immigrant bashing that drives Latino voters into the arms of Democrats. Republicans have been down this path before. In the 1920s, nativist, Protestant Republicans pushed anti-immigrant policies and excluded Roman Catholics from the party’s upper echelons. The result: Republicans didn’t win a presidential election after 1928 until 1952. And in Rhode Island, the Republicans lost their iron grip on state politics in 1935, never to regain it at the legislative level.

Another lesson for Republicans is to stop being the angry party of  NO: Congressman Charlie Bass, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire, said it best the day after he lost his seat.

“I don’t want taxes to go up, but if we sit in our corners and define success as a fight rather than a resolution to a problem, we will not survive,’’ Bass said in an interview with old friend Chris Rowland, now the Boston Globe’s Washington Bureau chief.

Are the Republicans listening?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:25. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at