The Republican Party's huge New England Problem
Rhode Island and the rest of New England have become foreign territory for Republicans. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why.
Just about every state in New England, and especially Rhode Island, could benefit from robust two-party political competition. Our state’s General Assembly has 113 members. Only 11 caucus with Republicans.
There are no Republicans representing the Ocean State in Washington and no political figure from the GOP holds any statewide office. No Republicans serve in the U.S. House from any New England state and our six-state region has just two U.S. senators, one from New Hampshire, the other from Maine.
Since Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory, every New England state has voted Democratic in every presidential election, except for the freak New Hampshire result in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by about 7,000 votes in a state where about 25,000 cast ballots for third party candidate Ralph Nader.
It wasn’t always this way. Let’s stroll down political history lane to 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy won a milestone presidential campaign to become the first Roman Catholic to capture the White House. In that election, there was a clear New England line of demarcation.
All you had to do was pull out a map and draw a pretty straight line from Bennington in western Vermont to Portsmouth in eastern New Hampshire. It was a Republican-Democratic Mason-Dixon border. The three rural, Protestant and agricultural states in the north, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, were rock-ribbed Republican; they all went for Republican Richard Nixon. The three southern industrial, urban, Catholic New England states of Rhode Island Connecticut and Massachusetts all supported Kennedy.
In that era, religion and ethnicity were much bigger factors than they are five decades later. It was hard to get a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew to agree on anything, much less politics. Now, years of interfaith marriage, our region’s high educational attainment compared to the rest of the nation and the long legacy of social and workplace assimilation among the sons and daughters of European immigrants has changed things.
What especially has happened is a loosening of the grip that Catholic clergy held on parishioners. The most vivid example of this in Rhode Island is the same-sex marriage legislation approved by our overwhelmingly Catholic Assembly despite vocal opposition from the state’s Catholic hierarchy, particularly Bishop Thomas Tobin.
On the hot-button social issues and women’s rights topics that so rile southern and sunbelt states, New Englanders seem to have adopted a live and let live attitude. All six states now recognize gay marriage and debates over abortion rights, gun control and immigration are tame here compared to other sections of the country.
Maybe all you have to know is that Vermont, once reliably Republican, supported President Obama in 2012 with his highest vote margin of any state in the continental U.S. And even Gov. Lincoln Chafee left the party of his ancestry and became a Democrat.
Republican candidates in New England run away from the positions of a national Republican Party in thrall to religious evangelicals, Tea Party activists, gun rights devotees, tax-cutters and oil and gas state interests. Last week, the Republican-dominated U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to effectively repeal Roe v. Wade by banning all abortions after 20 weeks. There isn’t one Republican women member on this committee.
The current Massachusetts Senate race is the latest example. The Republican candidate, Gabriel Gomez, is running against Democratic congressional lifer Ed Markey. Gomez seems to denounce his national party at every turn. He said in a recent debate that he was ``ashamed ‘’that only four Republican senators voted for stricter gun control and added that he felt the same way about Republicans who deny climate science. Former Sen. Scott Brown tried to distance himself from his party in last year’s election but still lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in cobalt blue Massachusetts. All this in a state that was once the ancestral home of moderate Republicanism. (Even Mitt Romney, he of the individual mandate health care regime, governed the Bay State largely as a moderate before veering right when he sought the presidency).
It’s become difficult to determine what New England Republicans can do to change all this. Rhode Island’s new state Republican chairman, Mark Smiley of Warren, told RI Public Radio that the party needs to field strong candidates and better communicate with voters. Republican House leader Brian Newberry of North Smithfield , a thoughtful young lawyer, told us much the same thing, but acknowledged that it sounded ``trite.’’
Wrapping out-of-date ideas in the shiny gift paper of new candidates isn't likely to work.
All is not lost in Rhode Island. The GOP does have a competitive candidate for governor next year in Cranston Mayor Alan Fung. And Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian is also a popular mayor from a vote-rich community.
But until Republicans in the region get the message that New Englanders these days are more in synch with each other politically than we are with the rest of the country, they are probably doomed to the dustbin of defeat.