THIS IS THE NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: Massachusetts Republicans wake up on Nov. 4, the day after Election Day, and find themselves with nothing. After a hard campaign, the Democrats have retaken the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices that they lost in 1990. Secretary of State William Galvin and Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci, both Democrats, have been easily re-elected. Republican state Treasurer Joseph Malone, who forswore a third term in order to run for governor (and to keep a term-limits pledge), is glumly preparing for a transition to Democrat Shannon O'Brien, who has just defeated her inexperienced Republican opponent, businessman Robert Maginn. Democratic Attorney General Scott Harshbarger is also preparing to hand over the keys to a Democrat--and perhaps getting ready to move upstairs, into the Corner Office that Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci is vacating.
Acting Governor Paul Cellucci is running for what would be his first full term in the Corner Office.
But what is most nightmarish about this scenario for Massachusetts Republicans is just how plausible it is.
Activists in every wing of the party concede that the Democrats are not likely to lose any ground they now hold and have a better-than-even chance of picking up the treasurer's office. Which means that Republican hopes for avoiding political oblivion are riding entirely on the governor's race.
Which in turn raises the question: Is the primary fight between Paul Cellucci and Joe Malone good for the Republicans or bad for the Republicans?
"If the governor's race in November goes to the Democrats," says Ray Shamie, the former GOP state chairman and two-time U.S. Senate candidate who now holds elder-statesman rank, "the party will have lost 10 years. Our activists will be completely demoralized. And the press will paint us as a party of incompetents, who held two top offices"--governor and treasurer-- "and managed to lose them both."
Peter Berlandi, a key fundraiser for former Gov. William Weld and now for Cellucci, offers the same gloomy forecast.
"When I look at the Cellucci-Malone fight, it is doing nothing to enhance the image of the party," he says. "If Paul loses, we'll go back to [being] a one-party state for the next 10 years." Malone's fight "is doing nothing to enhance the image of the party."
Berlandi, like all of Cellucci's supporters, argues that Malone's primary challenge is hurting the GOP by weakening its most important incumbent and draining resources that will be needed to fight the Democratic nominee in the fall.
State Treasurer Joe Malone is challenging Paul Cellucci in the Republican gubernatorial primary
Though Shamie won't talk about the subject on the record, it is widely known that he shares that view, notwithstanding his long friendship with Malone, who worked on both of his US Senate campaigns. Shamie had hoped that Malone could be convinced to quit the governor's race and team up as Cellucci's running mate; he tried for much of 1997 to broker such an arrangement. But Malone made it clear that he would not enter a partnership with Cellucci under any circumstances, and Shamie finally let himself be persuaded to sign a letter of endorsement. It touted Malone's ability to "win the support of Republicans, independents, and Democrats across Massachusetts," and called the treasurer "our best candidate to run and win in November 1998."
Those words promptly appeared in Malone's campaign literature. But a few months later, Shamie withdrew them. He told reporters he had never meant for his words of support to be used against Cellucci--that he was neutral in the contest, and had in fact contributed equally to each candidate's campaign.
The whole episode reminded many of the Republicans' pre-1990 reputation as a gang of Keystone Kops, running around cluelessly and shooting each other in the feet. It reinforced the sense that in Massachusetts, Republicans squander whatever political power they manage to seize. "You never see Democrats acting like this," one former GOP legislator says. "They'll kill each other for an open seat, but they never take down their own incumbents."
The Dukakis precedent
Yet Democrats do, on occasion, "take down" their own incumbents. US Rep. Martin Meehan, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, was elected to Congress in 1992 after first "taking down" his party's incumbent (and state chairman!), Chester Atkins. Perhaps Meehan was inspired by Scott Harshbarger, who ousted a fellow Democrat, James Shannon, on his way to winning the attorney general's office in 1990.
"The best thing that happens to the Republican Party is a contested primary," insists Michael Goldman, a veteran Democratic strategist, whose 1998 clients include Marjorie Clapprood in the 8th Congressional District, John Tierney in the 6th, and former congressman Brian Donnelly in the gubernatorial race. "It makes noise for them. It draws attention to their candidates."
Though a practiced debunker of Republicans, Goldman makes the case for Malone's challenge better than Malone does.
"Beating somebody in a primary can show real strength, which carries to November. 'Oh, yeah, he's the guy who beat Cellucci; he must not be a loser after all.'" The classic example, says Goldman: Michael Dukakis's climb to the governor's office in 1974. At the time a mere ex-state representative from Brookline (and a defeated former candidate for lieutenant governor), Dukakis disarrayed the Massachusetts political constellation by taking on Attorney General Robert Quinn in the Democratic primary, and beating him. He went on to beat Republican Gov. Frank Sargent in November.
"Dukakis was the outsider who was willing to take on his whole party--going against [then House Speaker Thomas] McGee and [then Senate President Kevin] Harrington and Quinn, that whole cast of characters who'd been running the State House," says Goldman. (He adds: "Later, of course, Michael became the ultimate insider.")
Whether a fractious primary hurts or helps the party is a hoary debate in Massachusetts Republican circles. Shamie may be privately dismayed over Malone's refusal to yield to Cellucci, the choice of the GOP Establishment -- but he must also be experiencing a sense of political deja vu. In 1984, when Paul Tsongas announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate, the GOP establishment united behind liberal mandarin Elliot Richardson, the former Massachusetts attorney general and holder of more federal Cabinet posts than just about anyone in US history. But Richardson was denied a clear shot at the Republican nomination by a much more conservative Lone Ranger who refused to get off the field: Ray Shamie.
Well into the summer of 1984, Richardson led Shamie in every poll. There were repeated calls for Shamie to bow out. But on Primary Day, it was Shamie's conservative message that prevailed, and Richardson was crushed in a landslide. Seven weeks later, Shamie lost a relatively close final to John Kerry. But in losing, he polled a remarkable 1.2 million votes, making him the most successful unsuccessful candidate for a major statewide office in a generation.
Shamie's experience is one Malone recalls vividly: He was Shamie's campaign manager. Clearly he is hoping that a markedly conservative campaign theme will enable him to accomplish in 1998 what Shamie accomplished in 1984: a knockout of the Establishment candidate.
The two cases aren't precisely alike. Shamie truly was a political outsider; Malone has been a Beacon Hill fixture, albeit a restive one, for eight years. Shamie was an across-the-board conservative who made no attempt to filter his message; Malone restricts his conservatism to economic issues, primarily government spending. (Indeed, he steers clear of social issues, and is in fact pro-choice.) Shamie made only scant reference to Richardson's failings as a Republican, while Malone insists at every stop that Cellucci has been faithless to the party.
But for all the differences, the similarities are striking. Malone's campaign emphasizes ideological message. Cellucci points to governance and accomplishment.
"There won't be any doubt in voters' minds by September," predicts Malone spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, "that Paul Cellucci is the liberal and Joe Malone is the conservative." His boss, rather more colorfully, says, "Weld, Cellucci, and I were all elected in 1990 to clean up the cesspool on Beacon Hill. Some of us went and started cleaning it up, and some thought it was a Jacuzzi and jumped in with the Democrats."
Malone routinely points out that the state budget under Weld and Cellucci has soared far above inflation while his own budget at the state treasury, as befits a true conservative, has been halved.
But Cellucci's camp argues that Malone misreads the voters. "Frankly, I don't think that Joe understands Massachusetts," Ray Howell, a longtime Weld/Cellucci adviser, maintains. "This isn't North Carolina; this isn't New Hampshire. It's Massachusetts -- and even Massachusetts Republicans aren't that conservative. Calling himself a 'conservative' and Cellucci a 'liberal' isn't a rationale for running. You need to attach nouns to those adjectives. Just saying 'conservative' and 'liberal' doesn't get you very far."
Howell offers only an indirect answer to Malone's constant refrain about government spending skyrocketing over the past eight years. "When Weld and Cellucci came in, there was a fiscal disaster. Now the budget is balanced. The economy is booming. I don't think it resonates with Massachusetts voters to say that Cellucci is some kind of liberal reckless driver." As evidence of the electorate's true feelings, he points to the re-election victory of the "Welducci" ticket in 1994--71 percent, the highest in more than 120 years.
Cellucci in the middle
What does Cellucci make of the accusation that he governs like a fiscal liberal? All agree that he, like Weld, has been steadfast in supporting broad-based tax relief, though not very combative in getting it enacted. Beyond that, it is difficult to judge how he will deal with the criticism that he overspends, since he rarely responds to Malone's attacks. "We have a policy of not engaging Malone," one campaign staffer explains. (Despite several requests, Cellucci did not speak to CommonWealth for this article.)
Certainly he has not been at pains to cast himself as a government-throttling conservative. He proposed a budget for fiscal year 1999 of more than $19.5 billion, far and away the largest in the Commonwealth's history. In January he proposed spending $40 million to hire 4,000 new teachers; in May he signed a "small necessities" law requiring employers to give workers three days of unpaid leave annually in order to accommodate doctor's visits and school appointments.
All of these were opposed by Malone, whose signature campaign pledge is that he would not, as governor, sign any budget that hiked government spending faster than the rate of inflation. "Because of the Acting Governor's failure to lead," he said in a statement in May, "we are now back to the days of growing budgets like Mike Dukakis and raising taxes besides."
One of the big question marks for Cellucci is whether the public goodwill that filled Weld's sails is still blowing for him. In 1994, the Welducci ticket got an electoral standing ovation from the voters, and was swept to a second term. In 1998, are voters still feeling grateful to the Republican team that stanched the Dukakis economic meltdown and presided over the recovery?
To a certain degree, of course, nothing succeeds like incumbency. Cellucci's prospects brightened dramatically once he acceded to the governorship. At the nonbinding party convention in Worcester, his operation left Malone's in the dust. As of Memorial Day, Cellucci's campaign fund was nearly twice the size of Malone's, roughly $3 million to $1.5 million. It is possible that the Republican primary will be decided not on issues, message, or appeal, but on brute political force.
But assuming that isn't how it turns out -- Malone is, after all, both a skilled campaigner and an incumbent in his own right -- what effect will the outcome of this fight have on the GOP's future? What would a Cellucci victory -- or a Malone victory -- mean for, and say about, Massachusetts Republicans?
"If Cellucci wins," declares Jon Keller, a journalist who covers and analyzes politics on WLVI-TV, WBZ radio, and in a weekly Boston Globe column, "it means that Republican voters think the status quo is just fine. And status-quo politics in Massachusetts is good for Democrats. But if Malone wins, it will signal an extraordinary statement of concern. It means the voters remember that the last time the state was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, the state crashed and burned."
"A Cellucci victory means the unquestioned primacy of the 'Beacon Hill Party,'" Keller says. "If Malone wins, it means the Establishment blew it."
The Battle over Bulger
Ultimately, the difference between a Cellucci-dominated GOP vs. a Malone-dominated GOP is the difference between a Republican party that seeks to work in tandem with the Democrats, muting ideological differences, vs. a party that sharply distinguishes itself from the Democrats and fights them on principle. Malone argues that by bending over backward to accommodate the Democratic power structure on Beacon Hill, the GOP undercuts its raison d'etre. Cellucci (through spokesmen) maintains that just such accommodation enabled him and Weld to end the fiscal disaster of the Dukakis years and steer the state into an economic boom.
Case in point: William Bulger. When Weld first ran for governor in 1990, he depicted Beacon Hill as "rotten to the core," identifying the then-Senate President -- who was fiercely disliked by Republicans -- as a perfect emblem of the rot. In one debate with his Democratic opponent, John Silber, Weld snapped: "I think you've been hanging around your friend Senator Bulger too long, absorbing the 1,001 reasons why it's impossible to change anything on Beacon Hill."
But once in office, Weld went out of his way to befriend Bulger. He participated in the Democrat's annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast. He campaigned with him on Election Day 1994, recommending him to voters as "a good man." He and Cellucci initiated private weekly meetings with Bulger and the then-House Speaker, Charles Flaherty. And when Bulger decided to retire from the Legislature, Weld pressed for his appointment as president of the University of Massachusetts. Cellucci celebrated Bulger's elevation to the new post as a "great day" for Massachusetts, and has scoffed at Malone's campaign promise to oust Bulger if he is elected governor.
But as Malone argues, it sends "very confusing signals -- to the citizens in general, and to the party activists" to treat with such deference and flattery a man who has always opposed nearly everything Republicans stand for. "How can they take the man we've always pointed to as the symbol of the worst of the Democrats' corruption and appoint him to one of the most prestigious positions in the state?" asks Malone.
A primary contest suggests to a party's voters that something important is at stake--something worth fighting over. Cellucci's supporters in the Republican Establishment insist that nothing is at stake except Malone's ambition, that the treasurer is running first and foremost because of ego. "In the long term," says Howell, "I don't think this campaign means anything to the future of the party. In the short term, it's hurting the party" by "forcing Cellucci to spend time and money defending himself from a Republican--time and money that could be spent defeating Democrats in the fall."
Even some of Malone's allies agree ruefully that, as one put it, "with Joe, there is always a layer of ego and wanting to be a big shot underneath the layer of principle." Another says: "Joe is a real sweet-talker, and he uses his charm to get what he wants. I think on balance he would do most things right [but he is] apt to take a poll to determine his course of action."
Building the party
At the end of the day, however, Malone is right about one very big thing: The Weld/Cellucci approach of avoiding fights with the Democrats has devastated the Republican Party. The party infrastructure has atrophied from lack of use and its farm team is nonexistent. "In order to build," Malone emphasizes, "you have to show the differences between Democrats and Republicans. These guys did the opposite. We're dwindling as a result of not creating healthy strain [with] the Democrats."
Here again, Shamie's experience is relevant.
His 1984 campaign, though unsuccessful, left him the state's most influential Republican. Early in 1987, he was elected chairman of the Republican State Committee. What he inherited was a shambles of a party, deeply in debt, its records unintelligible, its organizational abilities nil.
Shamie embarked on a four-year reconstruction campaign -- "he built it up," recalls Alexander (Sandy) Tennant, who became the party's hyperkinetic executive director in 1988, "the way he would build up a business." Extraordinary effort was poured into fundraising. A professional staff, eventually numbering 25, was assembled. For the first time, voter and donor files were professionalized. Computers were installed. A focused campaign to improve the party's image was launched, with a stream of media events and aggressive criticism of the Democrats who controlled Beacon Hill.
Candidate recruitment was a top priority. "We broke down every district, every ward, every precinct," Tennant says. "We had people responsible for recruiting candidates in western Mass., in southeastern Mass. We ran candidate 'schools' with, sometimes, 500 people. I was on the phone all the time; Ray chased the money people. We had charts on the wall mapping it."
The upshot was the victories of 1990: The GOP captured three of the six constitutional offices and 16 seats in the state Senate--enough to sustain a veto. There was an unmistakable sense that the Republican Party was back in business, a sense confirmed two years later when Republicans won two seats in Congress. Shamie stepped down as chairman, leaving the party's fortunes in the hands of the state's new Republican administration.
But Weld and Cellucci deliberately allowed what Shamie had built up to fall back into disrepair. A decision was made not to engage in Shamie/Tennant-style party building. Candidate recruitment stopped. The grassroots operation dried up. Fundraising slowed to a trickle. The beat-beat-beat of press releases and op-ed columns banging away at the Democrats ended.
Eight years later, the party is once again in debt. Its membership in the Legislature has declined by one-third. According to the current party chairman, Jean Inman, Republicans will not contest more than half the seats in the Legislature this year. No Massachusetts Republicans are in Congress. The state committee staff is down to five.
Inman tries to put a bright face on this dismal picture. "The fact that the state has been run well for eight years will be rewarded by the voters," she says. They simply need to be reminded of the importance of having a minority party to provide a check and balance.
But that is more or less what the minority party under Weld and Cellucci has refused to do. As Jon Keller bluntly asks, "After eight years of holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' with the Democratic leadership, why would any voter buy the idea that Cellucci is needed to provide balance?"
Goldman, the Democratic strategist, says that "to build up a party, there has to be consistency of message and some fervor. There hasn't been any fervor for seven years, and as a Democrat, I'm thrilled with that." If Cellucci wins the primary, he predicts, "nothing changes." But Malone "believes something is so inherently wrong with a political system totally controlled by one party that he would really fight to change it."
Howell acknowledges that Republicans attacked Democrats and their policies far more vigorously before Weld and Cellucci took office. "That's because the Republican Party then was the loyal opposition," he says -- i.e., Michael Dukakis was governor. Post-1990, however, "Republicans have accomplished much more of their agenda by having the governor's office than they ever did by fighting from the trenches."
"Republicans have accomplished more by having the governor's office than they ever did fighting from the trenches."
After the election
Whether the GOP agenda has been advanced as much as it could have been in the past eight years is a good topic for Cellucci and Malone to debate. What isn't debatable is the collapse of the Republican Party itself during the Weld/Cellucci era of good feelings.
One of the party's savviest practitioners, Massport's executive director (and former US Rep.) Peter Blute, is certain the party will be revived, for the simple reason that it has to be. That revival will require a Republican governor who is "tough, partisan, uncompromising, willing to fight, willing to be a stark contrast to the Democrats." Malone would fit that bill, laughs Blute, "because everybody in the State House hates him anyway."
But he doesn't think Malone can win, and he is confident Cellucci will fit that bill too. Until now, "Cellucci has succeeded because Weld succeeded," says Blute, who backs the acting governor. "But once he gets back in, he knows he has to change. Watch: You'll see how he comes out fighting the day after the election."
It is a forecast that underscores the precariousness of the Republicans' condition. If they lose the governor's office, they will have lost everything. And if they retain it, their fight back to life will have only begun.
Jeff Jacoby is an op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe. From 1987 to 1994, he was chief editorial writer at the Boston Herald. In previous incarnations, he was an assistant to Boston University President John Silber; a deputy campaign manager for the 1984 Ray Shamie for Senate campaign, and a lawyer.