For decades, Massachusetts delegates to the Republican National Convention were seen as the party’s ultimate outliers, visitors from the land of Democrats and Kennedys, not to mention from the ideological outskirts of their own party.
Not this year.
In Tampa this week, the Bay Staters will be front and center, the home-state delegation of Mitt Romney, the GOP’s first nominee for president from Massachusetts in 88 years. Romney is seen as having little chance of winning his home state in November, and many in the delegation hold beliefs well outside the Republican mainstream on social issues like gay and abortion rights.
But the Massachusetts contingent, no doubt still a curiosity to many, will enjoy the reflected glory of their former governor, who survived a tough nomination campaign during which he was derided by his conservative rivals as “a Massachusetts moderate.”
“There was always an assumption in other delegations that everything in Massachusetts is like Cambridge writ large; like everyone is walking around with a beret on,” said Peter Blute, deputy chairman of the state party who will not be in Tampa but has attended past conventions. “I suppose it’s like if you’re a Democrat, you’re fascinated by Texas.” Sixteen years ago, Blute and Peter Torkildsen were the last Republicans to represent the state in the US House of Representatives.
“This is the first time since Calvin Coolidge [in 1924] that we’ve had a Republican nominee from Massachusetts, and so I’ve gotten used to it over the years, all the good-natured beatings we would take because Massachusetts has not exactly been the hotbed of Republican politics,” said Ron Kaufman, a member of the Republican National Committee since 1988, veteran GOP operative, and an adviser to the Romney campaign.
With the Massachusetts delegation’s status come some valuable perks. Delegates will no longer be housed far from the convention center, having to endure a 45-minute commute from a motor inn out near the interstate or the airport to get to the action. The Bay State contingent will get prime seating on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and rooms across the street with the Romneys and party potentates at the posh 27-story Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.
And the party invitations will be better, the news media more attentive.
“Massachusetts Republicans have always been sort of exotic animals that Republicans from other parts of the country never really saw and couldn’t relate to,” said Rob Gray, a Boston-based Republican consultant. “They’ll be in the mainstream now at the convention with Romney as the nominee.”
The exalted status this year’s GOP delegation is enjoying is fairly routine for their Democratic counterparts from Massachusetts. Starting with John F. Kennedy in 1960 and continuing through Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 and John F. Kerry in 2004, the Bay State has churned out Democratic standard bearers with regularity. In that time, Republicans had only a Bay State nominee for vice president in Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, was born in Milton, but his parents moved to Connecticut about a year later.
How removed has Massachusetts been from the center of the Republican universe? Scott Brown will be the first sitting GOP senator from the state to attend a national convention since Edward W. Brooke, who was defeated for reelection in 1978 by Paul E. Tsongas, another Democrat who ran for president, losing the nomination to Bill Clinton in 1992. Brown, facing a tough reelection fight in the fall, will make a brief appearance in Tampa for Romney’s acceptance of the nomination and will not have a speaking role.
These quadrennial gatherings can be tricky or useful, depending on the politics and the messages generated for consumption back home. In 1984, Ray Shamie used the Dallas convention to pummel early favorite Elliot L. Richardson, his rival for the Republican Senate nomination. Shamie won the primary but lost to Kerry.
In 1996, then governor William F. Weld used the confab in San Diego to campaign vigorously but futilely for abortion rights in the party’s platform plank, courting the attention of the Boston news media covering the proceedings. He was in a tough and ultimately unsuccessful fight to unseat Kerry.
For Brown, who is trying to maintain an independent image, there is little to exploit in his battle with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in Tampa, surrounded as he will be by the increasingly conservative activists of the Republican base. For Richard R. Tisei, the former state senator and strong Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Representative John F. Tierney in the state’s Sixth Congressional District north of Boston, there is even less. Tisei, a social moderate, is openly gay. The party’s platform is decidedly hostile on the issue of same-sex marriage, and he will be campaigning in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts GOP is no longer the party of the patrician Lodges and Saltonstalls, or the conservative insurgents who rallied behind Shamie in the 1980s. It is something of a hybrid, a mixture of social moderates and conservatives but, on economic matters, more in conservative step with the national party.
The delegation also has a large contingent of supporters of one of Romney’s vanquished opponents, libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, after the Paul forces overran Romney-backed candidates for delegate slots at caucuses last spring. Most, if not all, are expected to vote for Romney when the home-state delegation, by tradition, officially puts his nomination over the top on the first ballot.
“There are a lot of economic conservatives in the delegation this year from all walks of life,” said Kerry Healey, Romney’s former lieutenant governor and a caucus casualty, who will attend the convention as an at-large delegate. There are students, young mothers, small business owners, and military veterans, and the delegation’s representative on the convention platform committee is Rachel Kemp of Boston, who is African-American, Healey said.
More than a quarter of the delegates are under the age of 40, according to Healey, the Romney campaign’s coordinator of foreign policy advisory groups and the delegation’s cochairwoman. Healey will, near the end of the convention, formally become the state’s Republican National committeewoman. Gray, the Republican consultant, says the Massachusetts delegation’s new acceptance into the GOP mainstream will continue if Romney wins the presidency. But “if he doesn’t win, they’ll go back to being an alien race once again.”