Mass. GOP hunkers down for 2016 election

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BOSTON – Although a Republican holds the state’s top public office, with barely more than 1-in-10 state voters registered as Republicans, the party has for years faced daunting odds in attempting to gain seats at both the congressional and local level.

This year will likely be worse, as a presidential election typically draws more than the usual number of voters to the polls, a tendency that makes it more difficult for a minority party to advance, observers say.

So far, Republicans are challenging only one Democratic congressional incumbent out of the Bay State’s nine, down from six contested seats in 2012. In that year, Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, led the ticket. But more Democrats and liberal independents turned out that year in order vote for President Barack Obama and Harvard University professor Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat.

Despite Republican leadership from Gov. Charlie Baker, state Republicans aren’t showing as much interest this year.

“Governor Baker isn’t going to make the same mistake as Mitt Romney in ’04 and try and run a party campaign to elect legislators during a good year for the Democrats,” said Peter Ubertaccio, who teaches politics at Stonehill College in Easton. “He has a good relationship with the legislative leadership and is not likely to risk jeopardizing that with a hard fought campaign to unseat incumbents.”

In 2004, 93 Republicans ran for seats in the state House of Representatives, while 28 ran for the senate. The lower chamber has 160 members, while there are 40 members of the Senate.

Romney’s 2004 “Team Reform” failed to unseat Democrats, according to Maurice Cunningham, who teaches politics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

“The Republican leadership is doing the right thing to concentrate on holding what it has already,” Cunningham said by email, referring to this year’s hunkered-down approach.

“If you are a quality and ambitious GOP candidate, you want to run in 2018 with the popular Baker on top of the ticket, not 2016 presidential with the possibility of Trump or Cruz,” he said, referring to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential contenders.

But state GOP spokesman Terry MacCormack said Thursday that Baker has “energized Republicans” in Massachusetts, suggesting that the popular governor will help incumbents hold onto their seats and move the party’s candidates forward.

“In 2016, Republicans will work to hold the gains we’ve made and go on offense to pick up additional seats at all levels of government across the state,” MacCormack said.

Although the numbers of GOP challengers had dwindled by 2014, the party did make some gains. According to, there were just 60 House races between candidates from the two major parties, but Republicans wound up with 34 seats, including 16 where their party’s incumbent faced no opponent. At the same point in 2012, the GOP held just 29 seats. Democrats have held a majority in the House since 1955.

Currently, there are just 5 Republicans in the Massachusetts Senate, compared with 34 Democrats, and there is one vacancy, according to Ballotpedia. In 2014, Republicans didn’t bother to seek 18 of the 40 Senate seats. Democrats have held a majority in the upper chamber since 1959.

“The strategy now is to win winnable races,” said Jeff Semon, vice chairman of the Massachusetts Young Republicans. “There are some favorable districts that we don’t win and theoretically could win, but you have to have the right campaign.”

When he ran for Congress in 2012, he sought to challenge longtime Democratic incumbent Ed Markey, who is now the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. But he lost the Republican primary to Tom Tierney, who went on to lose to Markey, who is from Malden. “I knew I was going to lose,” Semon said. “I ran because I wanted to get the right policies into public discourse.”

Now, he said, he would only run again if he thought there was a chance he could win – and he’s guessing the same is true for many of the Bay State’s potential Republican candidates.

Over the past three election cycles, voter registration data has left potential Republican contenders staring at a distinct disadvantage, with about 11 percent registered as Republicans to 35 percent as Democrats. In 2010, the GOP left 11 state Senate seats uncontested, and didn’t pursue 77 House seats. In 2012, those numbers burgeoned to 90 in the House and 24 in the Senate.

The outlook for this year is not much better, either at the congressional or state level. In 2014, one of the most Republican-friendly congressional districts, along the South Shore and covering Cape Cod, incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Keating (D-Quincy) handily defeated the GOP’s John Chapman by 10 percentage points. This year, three Republicans have announced challenges to Keating, Allen Waters, Mark Alliegro and Tom O’Malley.

Conservative blog Red Mass Group encouraged GOP leaders to actively recruit candidates in a Jan. 5 post.

“The Democrats are actively recruiting and targeting GOP incumbents with tough opponents. Our state party is only focused on open seats,” said the post. The site was recently acquired by Steve Aylward, a member of the Republican state committee. “If we don’t put Democrats on defense in 2016, the GOP will lose seats. We cannot gain seats by playing defense.”

Semon disagrees. Conservatives in the Bay State don’t run because the elections are not competitive, and recruiting is futile, he said.

“Not a lot of people are going to step up unless they think they can win,” he said. “Not a lot out there has shown us that we can.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.