Massachusetts Democrats, snake-bit by the special election of Sen. Scott Brown, actively campaigned this year for local candidates – the vast majority of whom won reelection, though in many cases by narrower margins than usual. Having to fight these competitive races at home meant there was no time for cross-border campaigning in New Hampshire—a traditional pastime for Bay State Dems. Some believe this lack of migrant campaign labor contributed to the GOP’s near-sweep of New Hampshire races.
As the 2010 midterms approached, the Republican Party eyed significant gains in the Northeast, many of which went unrealized. Publicly, the GOP expressed excitement that the shifting national political dynamic that birthed the Tea Party movement and would deliver a net gain of at least 62 U.S. House seats to the GOP had also put Massachusetts’s 10th district in play. Privately, however, many Republicans believed that they could flip more than just the 10th district.
The national attention being brought to bear on their opponents might even help unseat incumbent Reps. Niki Tsongas and Barney Frank. Polling data from both races suggested the Democrats were vulnerable, and Brown’s win in both of their districts gave Republicans reason for optimism. Republicans were not the only ones aware of these potentially embarrassing upsets on the horizo--and Democrats mobilized in order to prevent them.
For Dr. Kenneth Cosgrove, associate professor of government and director of graduate studies at Boston’s Suffolk University, candidates explain the GOP’s improved performance in the Bay State performance this year. “The Republican Party came up with a roster of fairly decent candidates,” says Cosgrove. “[Democrats] had to defend candidates that they hadn’t had to defend in years.”
While the Democratic Party came out on top in almost every federal and city-wide race this year in Massachusetts, those wins did not come without cost. Cosgrove suggests that the level of involvement that Democratic operatives poured into Massachusetts meant that they could not dedicate time and money to neighboring New Hampshire, where the Republican landslide had its most devastating impact on New England Democrats.
In New Hampshire, Republicans now have their strongest presence since 1900. They control 297 of the 400 seats in the state House, the state Senate and both U.S. House seats. Democrats squandered an opportunity to flip retiring Sen. Judd Gregg’s seat, and the only Democrat to win statewide office was incumbent Gov. John Lynch. Dr. Cosgrove believes this can be attributed to the lack of Massachusetts-based volunteers that normally flood the swing state, eager to have an impact in election years when comfortably Democratic Massachusetts does not offer a challenge for them .
This year, Democrats took nothing for granted and stayed home, working their native districts, and leaving New Hampshire fully exposed to the national GOP wave.
Dr. Cosgrove, who lives in New Hampshire, was surprised by the lack of a Democratic ground operation this year. “In the run up to the election, you didn’t see boots on the ground like you did in 2008,” he says. “We didn’t have our friends from Massachusetts come and tell us how to vote this year.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Democrats have already shown signs of fighting back against the GOP resurgence in their state. Pro-GOP groups targeted white, middle-class men with significant success in the special Senate election in January that led to Brown’s election. This in turn prompted the slightly calcified Massachusetts Democratic Party to reinvigorate its organizational apparatus. The most energized campaign in the state, according to Cosgrove, was that of incumbent Governor Deval Patrick. “[Patrick] did great customer relationship management,” says Cosgrove, in reference to Patrick’s tending to his base. “For Democrats, they should use Patrick as the model for customer management and evangelism.”
How will the lessons learned in New Hampshire and Massachusetts be applied to the next election cycle in 2012? The GOP’s challenges will be compounded by the presence of President Obama at the top of the ticket, but the GOP is just starting to rebuild its Northeastern presence, and has plenty of room to grow. “It takes time to build an organization,” says Cosgrove. “I think this is an interesting time for the country. It is not just about issues and personalities, but about [party] structures.”
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com