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Why can't the Bay State elect a Democratic governor?

IT'S MASSACHUSETTS'S LONGEST-running mystery. The Democratic Party dominates all levels of state politics -- from state representative to US senator -- but cannot capture the State House corner office. A year after losing their fourth consecutive gubernatorial election, Democrats are still asking themselves: Why?

Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former domestic policy adviser to Al Gore, seeks to answer the question in an article published in the summer 2003 issue of CommonWealth magazine. Examining Election Day exit polls from the last 12 years, she found that independents were most likely to split their tickets when voting for governor and president.

But the bigger news was the impact of the state's changing demographic makeup. Kamarck found that Democratic candidates, both state and national, fare best at the lower end of the income distribution (with voters from households earning less than $75,000 annually) and at the top of the educational spectrum (voters with masters' degrees and doctorates).

That's a problem for Democrats. People with advanced degrees may constitute the fastest-growing portion of the state's population, but it is still the smallest portion. And on the income side, the news for Democrats is even worse: The under-$50,000 bracket, where Democrats do best, shrank from 64 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 37 percent in 2000.

In short, Kamarck found, Democratic gubernatorial candidates were being abandoned by the broad middle class (households earning $30,000 to $100,000 per year) as well as by the most affluent. Meanwhile, the share of voters earning more than $100,000 a year grew from 9 percent in 1994 to 21 percent in 2000.

From these data, Kamarck concludes that the party's statewide candidates need to adopt a more "New Democrat" message -- stressing managerial competence, commitment to economic growth, and independence from interest groups such as unions and even the party apparatus itself.

In Kamarck's estimation, 2002 Democratic nominee Shannon O'Brien egregiously neglected the growing middle-class suburbs. Her support for raising the minimum wage, for example, failed to speak to the crucial swing voters who live in a Natick or an Acton. While O'Brien may have hurt herself among conservative Democrats with her dip into social-issue liberalism on abortion and gay marriage, the damage among suburban independents came from her unshakeable image as a Beacon Hill insider. "In the end, the first female nominee for governor was too easily cast as one of the Good Ole Boys," writes Kamarck.

Kamarck's were by no means the last words on the subject. A subsequent online forum (posted at www.massinc.org/commonwealth) generated a variety of responses from prominent politicos of both parties, along with an equal number of reactions from readers (you can add your own comment by writing to demforum@massinc.org).

Brandeis professor Robert Reich, a 2002 candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, concurred with Kamarck on the need for Democrats to run against the machine politics of Beacon Hill but slammed her for suggesting that suburban Democrats are too self-interested to care about an issue like the minimum wage. "Politics at its best isn't just about giving people what they want for themselves," Reich wrote. "Politics at its best is about appealing to people's ideals about what's best for everyone."

Former governor Michael Dukakis reminisced about his own efforts to bridge the urban-suburban political divide. "I remember early in my gubernatorial campaigns being referred to -- not always approvingly -- as a `suburban Democrat,' part of the `brie and chablis set.' I didn't take kindly to that characterization, first, because no self-respecting Greek would eat brie, and, second, because I yield to no one in my commitment to the Commonwealth's older urban communities."

Unlike Kamarck, Dukakis thought O'Brien was just the kind of candidate to bridge that divide, if only she had learned the lesson of his own presidential-campaign wimpiness: "As a guy named Mike Dukakis learned all too painfully in 1988, if the other guy comes at you with an attack campaign, you had better be ready for it, preferably with a plan that turns his attack campaign into a character issue on him. Shannon had all the ingredients she needed for just such a strategy. She just never used them."

Republicans responded to the Kamarck analysis with some chortling. Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom, asserting that post-election post-mortems are "usually reserved for the losers," explained his boss's victory in the simplest of terms: "Everyone was against Mitt Romney -- except the people." Republican National committeeman Ron Kaufman suggested that Massachusetts voters "are beginning to realize they're not as liberal as everyone outside the Commonwealth thinks."

Meanwhile, a contingent of young activists wrote in, striking a different chord. James Downing, for example, claimed that young voters "think about starting a career, going (back) to school, paying student loans, affording their ever-increasing rent, or buying a first home." He added: "If a Democratic candidate can simply speak our language and give us some hint that they remember how hard it is to start a life, there is a huge pool of votes to be had."

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation of the Democrats' gubernatorial woes came from Shawni Littlehale, of the free-market Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. In Littlehale's estimation, Massachusetts voters are "purely selfish": "The majority of the electorate wants a fiscally conservative governor to push for lower taxes and cuts in our bloated state government, while they want their [state] rep/state senator to bring home perks for their cities and towns."

If that's the case, Democrats considering a run for the governor's office in 2006 are going to need more than a new pitch.

Robert Keough is editor of CommonWealth, a quarterly journal published by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston.

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