American politics in 2018 is a hot mess. The Age of Trump will almost certainly be understood as a chaotic and terribly destructive time in American politics when our institutions were strained to the limit and democratic norms of conduct were shattered. Not so in Massachusetts, however.
In the run up to the 2018 midterm elections the ongoing national political circus is just background noise to pols and policymakers in the Bay State. While the rest of the country prepares for a knock-down, drag ‘em out partisan showdown this fall, a national referendum on Trump and Trumpism, Republican Charlie Baker remains the most popular governor in America and his would-be Democratic challengers are facing the same headwinds that Democratic challengers of GOP governors in the state have faced for decades. As usual, the MassGOP has no serious candidates for any statewide offices (save one) or U.S. House seats in 2018. Elizabeth Warren’s route to re-election is even more secure than Baker’s, and the most intense politicking in this election season will not endanger any elected incumbents because it will be all about ballot measures. At present, there are two approved questions for the state’s 2018 ballot, a millionaire’s tax and a referendum on the Transgender Public Accommodations Act signed into law by Charlie Baker in 2016. There are also several potential measures presently being negotiated behind closed doors in order to see if a deal can be struck between Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill and the advocates and opponents of a minimum wage increase, paid family and medical leave, and a sales tax cut.
Compared to most of the rest of the country, where moral outrage and anti-establishment rage are in vogue, the 2018 political narrative in Massachusetts is shaping up to be a curious exception that cannot be attributed simply to the fact that the coming “blue wave” can’t make the bluest state bluer. Even our closest blue state neighbor to the south is feeling the impact of the ongoing national political storm. Connecticut is bracing for a partisan donnybrook this fall. Both the governorship and the state senate are up for grabs in the Nutmeg State and with Democratic Congresswomen Elizabeth Esty bowing out of the 2018 race, Connecticut Republicans even have visions of returning a GOP member to the state’s U.S. House delegation.
Why do Massachusetts elected officials of both parties seem immune to the harsh and uncivil partisan combat engulfing the rest of the country?
Incumbent politicians on Beacon Hill tend to get along as well or better with fellow incumbents of both parties as with unelected fellow party members. Massachusetts politics, despite or maybe because of its reputation as a one party state, has long been more of an insider versus outsider than a left versus right game. Nonpartisan local elections in Massachusetts may play a role in the maintenance of incumbent-friendly politics. The state’s allowance of ballot initiatives and referenda may also help channel ideological partisanship away from campaigns for office. By contrast, Connecticut has partisan elections from top to bottom and does not allow statewide ballot initiatives. While Democrats on Beacon Hill enjoy indestructible veto-proof majorities, Connecticut Democrats are in real danger of losing both the Governorship and the state senate this fall.
The three Democrats vying to face Charlie Baker this fall are having a very difficult time filling their coffers and building campaign momentum and Beacon Hill Democrats aren’t straining themselves to be of assistance. The lack of enthusiasm of Beacon Hill Democrats for their own party’s gubernatorial field has gotten quite a bit of press (examples here and here), including speculation by one local columnist about the possibility of Baker earning the Democratic nomination this year. In the Age of Trump, with American politics seemingly awash with harsh and unyielding partisanship the race for Massachusetts Governor this year must seem other worldly to out-of-state observers. For long-time observers of Bay State politics, however, a socially progressive, fiscally moderate, GOP governor who has a good working relationship with Beacon Hill Democrats cruising to re-election is politics-as-usual in the state.
Beacon Hill Democrats are perfectly happy to make deals with moderate Republican governors. It’s often much easier to do so than to satisfy ideologically motivated progressives in their own party, a task made more (not less) unpleasant when the governor is a Democrat. Interest-based compromises are easier to broker when ideological purists are marginalized. Divided government in Massachusetts helps individualistic, transactional, establishment politicians avoid the no holds barred drama of moralistic, ideologically charged politics. A key reason why Democrats in the State House rarely face serious Republican opposition is that potential backers of GOP state legislative candidates in the state have little reason to prefer representatives or senators of their own party because Democratic leaders and rank-in-file legislators have always remained appropriately sensitive to the tax and regulatory interests of the state’s business community. This leaves most GOP state legislative candidates overly dependent on socio-cultural conservative issues and bakers, making them more trouble than they are worth to pro-business interests in the state.
Massachusetts-based fire breathers, right and left, will once again have to be content with bit roles this year.
Conservative culture warriors in Massachusetts have only the doomed bids of ultra-conservative gadfly Scott Lively for the GOP gubernatorial nod and whoever gets picked to lose to Elizabeth Warren. The real Trumpist/Tea Party political energy this fall will be focused on the ballot measure to repeal the Transgender Public Accommodations Act. With zero influence in the Corner Office or in the state legislature, social conservatives often try to go over the politicans’ heads by putting hot button issues on the statewide ballot. A home grown wingnut group calling itself “Keep MA Safe” has already begun airing ads intended to frighten voters into thinking that trans-gender predators will use the law to prey on little girls in public bathrooms. This effort will be the one clear example of Trumpist/Tea Party rage politics here in Massachusetts. The Bay State’s small but feisty band of right wing culture warriors will almost certainly embrace their role as the brave defenders of virtue fighting their holy war on the enemy’s most sacred ground. The measure will not pass, but it does have the potential to create political headlines that could make Bay State elections seem more partisan to the rest of the country than they are.
On the left, progressives hoping to advance the ball on Bernie Sander’s “revolution” will have a couple of U.S. House primaries to troll as well as a national spotlight for their defense of the Transgender Public Accommodations Act. Two of the state’s most senior U.S. House members are facing primary challenges from progressive women of color. Richie Neal (MA-1) is facing a longshot challenge from Tahirah Amatul-Waduda, a Springfield Attorney and member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, as well as the Massachusetts Council of American-Islamic Relations while Mike Capuano (MA-7) faces a more formidable challenger in Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. The effort to unseat the state’s longest serving Congressman who would become Chair of Ways and Means if Democrats retake the House, will (barring the unforeseeable) fall short. Richie Neal’s organizational muscle and loyal base of voters make Amatul-Wadula’s protest candidacy more about highlighting progressive issues and positions than about winning. Rep. Mike Capuano, however, will have a harder time against Ayanna Pressley, but not because the race will be a genuine matchup of a Clinton-style establishment pol and a fire breathing Berniac. If Ayanna Pressley unseats Capuano it will be because she is a skilled professional politician willing and able to leverage the politics of the moment (described well by Professor Cunningham here) and to cultivate support from establishment figures and groups. She and Capuano are both bone fide progressives, which means that Pressley will have to argue that she is better situated than the 10-term congressman to leverage political power in the service of progressive policy goals. While Capuano has lined up many of Boston’s power players, including the Mayor, Pressley’s potentially potent position between the party’s warring sides is reflected in Elizabeth Warren’s publicly stated neutrality in the 7th District primary.
If the 2018 elections in Massachusetts do turn out to be a “politics-as-usual” affair, it will provide further evidence that the state’s political culture is decidedly individualistic and as such is inhospitable to the moralistic, polarizing partisanship dominating politics in Washington as well as state capitals across the country. It would suggest that the stuff paying the bills for virtually every news media outlet in the country right now just doesn’t move Massachusetts voters on Election Day. And, to me it would suggest that Massachusetts is well situated to weather the present political storms and to serve as a beacon of normalcy.