When I walked into the campaign office of Richard Tisei, Republican Congressional candidate in Massachusetts' 6th district, I first noticed the photos on the walls. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, they all displayed Republicans politicians from Massachusetts. Some were governors, some were congressmen, but all of them were images from a time when moderate Republicanism was a prominent staple of both Massachusetts and American politics. Known for moderation, bipartisanship, and fiscal frugality, Massachusetts Republicans were also unfailing gentlemen in the Yankee tradition.
Tisei is a living anachronism, one of the few candidates who would give a thirty minute interview to an unknown blogger, he harkens back to the sensibilities of that bygone era. Pro-choice and openly gay, Tisei identifies as a "live and let live Republican," who wants government out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom. While the average Republican would walk away from a budget deal at mere mention of revenue or defense cuts, Richard knows meaningful deficit reduction requires revenue-positive tax reform and that the Pentagon is no exception to the wasteful tendencies of government spending. Instead, he would refuse to vote for a budget deal that cut human services too deeply, believing that the government has a duty to help those who cannot help themselves, a belief deeply rooted in personal experiences with his disabled sister Debra. He understands that although the size of government needs to be reduced, it should be done with a surgeon's scalpel rather than a butcher's cleaver. Rather than focusing on further harming those Americans on the bottom rung of life's ladder, he wants to shrink government by focusing on efficiency: reforming the tax code, identifying and cutting waste, and means-testing entitlement programs. As he put it during our interview, "there are people who want government to do nothing, people who want it to do everything, and I'm in the middle."
At first glance, this kind of moderate sentiment makes Tisei look like a Democrat who just happens to call himself a Republican. Although Tisei is certainly no Tea Partier, he supports the Bush tax cuts, opposes Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, and advocates for deregulation. Rather than being a hidden Democrat, Tisei is an example of the Republican philosophy applied sensibly and moderately. His opponent, incumbent John Tierney, is anything but sensible and moderate, being ranked in 2009 by National Journal as one of the nine most liberal Congressmen. He no longer enjoys this dubious honor, but not because he has become any less extreme. Instead, he was absent for so much of the last Congressional session that harder working extremists surpassed him in the rankings. In fourteen years as a Congressman, Tierney has never gotten one of his bills passed into law, just barely avoiding a jail sentence for helping his felonious brother-in-law launder money from an online gambling empire.
On paper, this race should be a twenty point blowout. Yet Tisei is only six points ahead and although he is favored going into the election, political handicappers are not writing off Tierney's chances. The affluent suburban voters who once provided the Republican party with its strength throughout the Northeast have been driven away from the party since the 1990s. This has created an environment where even an impeccably qualified, moderate Republican faces a nigh-Sisyphean task seeking elected office in Massachusetts. The state is so heavily Democratic that even if a Republican wins two-thirds of independent voters, they still need to win twenty percent of Democrats in order to be elected. So toxic is the Republican brand in Massachusetts, from years of being identified with evangelical Christianity and more recently the Tea Party, that even an incompetent crook like John Tierney has a fighting chance against any candidate with an "R" next to his ballot line.
Once upon a time, moderate Republicans could be found throughout Massachusetts. It has been a blue state since the 1950s, but it was a light blue, electing and re-electing Republicans like Silvio Conte, Peter Torkilson, Bill Weld and Paul Celluci, and voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. As the fifth richest and third least religious state, Massachusetts was hospitable to Republicans so long as they were socially moderate. The culture wars that began to engulf politics in the 1990s changed that, and the Bush presidency pushed Massachusetts Republicans to the brink of extinction as the Terri Schiavo controversy, knee-jerk opposition to stem cell research, and the prohibition of birth control advocacy in any charity receiving even a dollar of federal aid, defined the Republican party as inextricably linked with evangelical Christianity. The only way the Republican party can reverse this perception, and regain the affluent suburbanites who were once an essential part of the party, is by electing moderate Republicans who demonstrate that being Republican does not require someone to adhere to fundamentalist religious values. Electing Richard Tisei would be a good start.