Scott Brown. Kerry Healey. William Weld. Tagg Romney. One by one, the most credible GOP candidates for the Massachusetts special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat decided not to run. And that barren field underscores how far the Republican Party's brand has fallen in New England.
Just take a look at Congress, where there isn’t a single Republican from a New England state serving in the House; the Senate has two such lawmakers, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Maine's Susan Collins.
"Republicans in the northeast have lost ground, but part of that, I believe, is we’ve become less inclusive. Over time, there has been a very strong Libertarian movement in New Hampshire and Maine, and we need to open our doors to them,” said Healey, the former Massachusetts lieutenant governor. "We need to be able to embrace and create a conservative coalition that encompasses the Libertarian-leaning Republicans, the social conservatives, and also the traditional Northeast moderate conservatives.”
Until recently, Massachusetts seemed like a decent starting point for Republicans to stage a New England revival. Former Sen. Scott Brown proved that a Republican can win under the right circumstances. The prospect of his running in this year’s special election in Massachusetts concerned Democrats; they already had been strategizing on a campaign against him.
"Republicans in the Northeast have lost ground, but part of that, I believe, is we’ve become less inclusive." – former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey
But once Brown dropped out, other credible candidates quickly followed suit. Richard Tisei, who nearly unseated Democratic Rep. John Tierney, passed up the opportunity. Tagg Romney’s name was floated; within a day, he squashed that rumor. Former Gov. Weld and Healey both declined.
“It reminds me of the ‘Three Stooges’ episode where the sergeant says, ‘I need volunteers for a dangerous mission. Step forward.’ And they all step back,” Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund told the Boston Herald.
Mitt Romney's legacy also weighs on statewide Republicans, and may have played a role in tampering recruitment. His popularity in Massachusetts dropped as he pursued national office. For a Massachusetts Republican, being connected to Romney is now a political vulnerability. The state Democratic Party has already begun attacks on state Rep. Dan Winslow, who is exploring a bid, by calling him "one of the former governor’s apologists and political attack dogs.” Winslow was Romney's chief legal counsel. Healey's Romney ties played a role in her loss to now-Gov. Deval Patrick in 2006. Tagg Romney's biggest vulnerability would have been his last name.
That means the Republican field will come down to little-known candidates. Winslow is a likely candidate. Former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez is considering the race too, according to a Massachusetts GOP activist. Whoever becomes the eventual Republican candidate will have to face Rep. Ed Markey or Rep. Steve Lynch, both longtime Democratic congressmen.
That said, Brown started out as a nonentity when he entered the race against Martha Coakley. In a matter of weeks, the little-known state senator became a familiar face, with his trademark pickup truck becoming a staple of political conversation.
Healey concedes that even if the GOP ends up with a special-election nominee the public knows little about, “in another year, that person would be a household name and could take another bite of the apple.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated how many Republican senators are from New England, leaving out Susan Collins of Maine.