The predicament of the Mass. Republican

They have been treated like 1950s children, left to play on their own, and sometimes squabbling among themselves with nobody paying much attention

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed column from former Boston Business Journal Executive Editor George Donnelly.

By George Donnelly

They have been treated like 1950s children, left to play on their own, and sometimes squabbling among themselves with nobody paying much attention. Now, the most politically powerful person in Massachusetts will be one of theirs. And the Massachusetts GOP, especially its few elected leaders, small in number and largely ignored for so long, will come out of the shadows.

It sounds like a good story line. But don't bet on it. The gravitational forces weighing against the Bay State Republicans are still very strong, and actually may increase as the GOP takes over Congress next year. The local Republican messages of fiscal sobriety and economic growth may be drowned out by the noise from the national stage. The grinning face of Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, and the culture wars that are certain to continue, will be a drag on Bay State Republicans' fortunes unless they focus intently on the theme of opportunity for all.

Baker just this week showed signs he wants to yoke the party to the middle, showing support for moderate state GOP Chair Kristen Hughes. It looks like Baker wants the party to follow his playbook and stand up and be counted among the throng of Democrats.

There's much at stake, and not just for the local GOP. A stronger Republican Party would be good for Massachusetts, create more dynamism in policy debates and possibly invigorate the Democrats.

Credit Massachusetts' Republican forces for showing some vigor of their own this election. They added two senators to their ranks, including the seat held by retiring Senate President Therese Murray, bringing the total to a mighty six (out of a total of 40). In the House, Republicans picked up five seats, and will have 34 reps out of 160 when the Legislature convenes next year. All the same, they remain a puny legislative force, now only slightly less insignificant.

They have other challenges, especially fortifying the underlying foundation of the party, which continues to suffer from enrollment attrition. Only 10.9 percent of the commonwealth is registered Republican, or about 469,000 voters, down almost 12 percent since October 2004.

The enrollment decline can be attributed to several factors, including a lack of money and organizational heft. But the big elephant in the room, so to speak, is the unappealing brand of the national GOP. Many voters - even college students and young professionals - may be captivated by the call for personal responsibility, limited government and economic opportunity. But how do they reconcile themselves to values they may find unenlightened at best on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and immigration? It's the reason fiscal conservatives like me don't enroll in the party.

The Massachusetts GOP did itself no favors when it adopted a platform for its 2014 state convention that embraced "traditional" marriage and stated, "every instance of abortion is tragic." That platform reflected a split in the state's GOP between the conservatives and the moderates. Even a small party like the Massachusetts GOP is not monolithic.

Baker ran as far from those conservative social values as he could, earning him a RINO (Republican in name only) moniker from the hard-core conservative wing. He won by creating his own brand of Republicanism, borrowing heavily from the Bill Weld school of politics. More than anything, he was simply Charlie Baker, as non-frightening a Republican one could find while still being a Republican.

Baker succeeded in cultivating his own middle-of-the-road persona, but it will be a challenge for him and the party to update and grow the appeal of Massachusetts Republicanism. But it isn't impossible, for there are several themes that offer inroads with the average voter. And with Baker in office, the Republicans have a first-rate thinker to articulate broadly appealing messages.

One obvious opportunity is to advance the idea that Republicans are the true champions of business and economic opportunity. That is their natural calling card. Yet there is no party of business in Massachusetts, in part because the Republicans have been too marginalized to effect policy toward improving the business climate. As good as the economy has been in the past three years, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially west of Route 495. Even Massachusetts' fastest-growing companies are handcuffed by high costs and a shortage of human capital. A party that loudly aligns itself with jobs and economic opportunity stands to win some converts.

The Bay State's GOP also needs to forge a compelling message to the ever-growing immigrant population. In Massachusetts, demographics are political destiny, and the local GOP risks looking hopelessly out of touch if it fails to champion the economic vibrancy and potential of the Bay State's aspiring immigrant population. The Massachusetts GOP has tried to expand its base in urban areas, but it needs real policies that provide jobs and lessen the alienation of new immigrants, many of whom are entrepreneurs.

Growth, innovation, opportunity, and new blood from around the world: They all are exciting trends in Massachusetts that the GOP needs to fully embrace if it doesn't want to be left behind.

-- George Donnelly is the former executive editor of the Boston Business Journal. Reach him at [email protected]

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