Massachusetts Republican state Senator Scott Brown's recent victory to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat has sent political shockwaves across America. To outsiders, Massachusetts has long been known as "Kennedy Country", the bastion of liberalism in America. But to Massachusetts voters, electing Republicans is no new phenomenon.
Republican William Weld was elected governor in 1990. At that time, Massachusetts was in the middle of a fiscal crisis, state unemployment was above 10%, the state's bond rating was almost junk status, and consumers and businesses were drowning under new taxes to finance the state's growing debt burden.
Weld won on an anti-establishment, anti-tax platform and capitalized on voter anger over the economy, growing budget deficits, and unchecked government spending by Democrats who had controlled both the governor's office and the state legislature since 1975.
In a similar way, Brown was able to harness voter discontent, this time aimed at the Federal Government, over trillion dollar budget deficits, huge increases in government debt, one party control, and the general perception that the Obama administration and the Democratic controlled Congress have moved too quickly in trying to pass national health care.
But without Independent voters, Weld's and Brown's message would have fallen on deaf ears.
Massachusetts Democrats currently control the state's 10 congressional seats and all five statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor). The lower house of the state legislature is comprised of 160 members, 16 of which are Republicans. The upper house, the Senate, has 40 members, five of which are Republicans (one of which is Brown).
The state is heavily Democratic, however in terms of registered voters, Independents, Democrats and Republicans comprise 51%, 37% and 11% of the voting population, respectively, so Independents are the driving force in statewide elections.
The year Weld was elected governor, Independents surpassed Democrats as the largest voting bloc. Weld was successful in ushering in a new era for Massachusetts Republicans by leveraging support from Independents -- the soccer moms and middle class working families who liked his conservative fiscal policies but more liberal positions on social issues. He and his Republican successors, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney, kept control of the governor's office for 16 years because of their broad appeal among voters who do not identify as either Republican or Democrat.
Brown similarly was able to mobilize Independents, with his down-to-earth personality and image as a barn jacket wearing, pickup truck driving guy who is not beholden to ideology. His "I answer only to my conscience" stump speech resonated with swing voters who are tired of the business as usual polarization in Washington that prevents Democrats and Republicans from working together to solve our national problems.
With Brown's victory, the Republican Party is at an inflexion point. Mid-term elections are less than a year away. By beating the Democrats on their home turf, Brown single handedly rejuvenated Republicans everywhere in a way that few other people could have done.
But to repeat Brown's success outside of Massachusetts, the Republican Party will need to open up their tent, become more inclusive and support moderate candidates who have widespread appeal among Independents -- the swing voters who decide elections. If they can broaden their message to include candidates who call themselves Republican even if their views on social issues are not totally in sync with those of the Republican Party, as Massachusetts goes, so may America come November.
John B. Stimpson served as an aide to former Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld. He lives in New York City.