by Brian Kennedy
On Oct. 17th there was a three-way special state Senate election for the Bristol-Norfolk District that was decided by a plurality. The candidates were a Bernie Sanders Socialist Democrat in Paul Feeney, a Democrat that voted for Trump running as an Independent in Joe Shortsleeve, and the Republican candidate Jacob Ventura. The end result was 14,744 votes cast, with 6,982 (47.36%) for Feeney, 6,405 (43.44%) for Ventura, and 1357 (9.19%) for Shortsleeve. By the numbers, the turnout was dismal. In comparison, the last competitive state Senate race was 2012’s James Timilty vs. Jeff Bailey, a contest which drew 75,687 votes in the general election, roughly five times the current turnout.
Here’s the problem – low turnout is usually good for Republicans. Special elections are usually good for Republicans. So why was a Republican unable to capitalize?
In part, blame the State Committee members in the district. The Republican Party in the Bristol-Norfolk District is in many ways in disarray. The State Committee people – Angela Davis and Dominick Ianno – responsible for that district raised zero dollars for the Republican candidate and hosted no events for him. In Norton, Ventura actually lost to Feeney despite it being a largely red town with only one Democratic leaning precinct per a Massnumbers analysis. Norton does not have an active Republican Town Committee, though surrounding towns Attleboro and Mansfield do.
Help from above did come in: Governor Charlie Baker campaigned for Ventura after the primary, and conservative activists gathered from all around the state to aid Ventura in the election.
The fault certainly does not lie on Ventura, who ran an excellent and obviously competitive campaign. Nor does the blame easily fall on Shortsleeve for “splitting the vote,” given he claimed he would caucus with the Democrats, and it is impossible to gauge whether his voting for Trump was in people’s minds on Election Day.
What we do know is that in Massachusetts, a near miss when circumstances favor Republicans is an indication we have more work to do. Why were the Republican State Committee people missing in action during the race? Why was a town which should have gone red by a decent margin not adding to Ventura’s bank of votes? Norton was not large enough to impact the final results, but local Party work done there would have allowed the campaign to focus its own resources elsewhere.
The establishment will surely claim these are small things, that State Committee people who were part of “Charlie Baker’s Team” of endorsed State Committee candidates have a much lower bar to prove themselves. A bar so low it reaches zero dollars raised and events hosted, and local committees not established, apparently. At least unlike Matt “Sirens” Sisk and Michael Case, they haven’t embarrassed the Party publicly.
But special elections are won by small things. It is no longer enough for Charlie Baker’s Team on the State Committee to sit on the sidelines while we lose special elections. The governor’s personal popularity has not moved Party registration up noticeably. In fact, his anti-Trump messages may actually have reduced the overall number of recent converts. We need a Republican Party that demands more of its State Committee members than unformed committees in favorable locations, zero dollars raised, and zero events hosted.
Broad unity and air dropping into special elections is no longer enough to win them. It’s time for us to stop praying one man’s popularity will rebuild a Party that is in shambles on the state-wide level. Replace Angela Davis and Dominick Ianno with State Committee members that will actually perform the functions their roles in the state Republican Party demand. Since they clearly cannot perform the job, they must resign and be replaced by people who can. ♦
Brian Kennedy is the National Director of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly. www.Mass-RA.com