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No Political Label Can Help Massachusetts Candidates on National Stage

The transformations that candidates go through can be especially interesting in my home state, the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts. Ever since Massachusetts was the only state won by George McGovern in 1972, it has widely been considered a bastion of liberalism.

Democratic candidates from the state such as Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Elizabeth Warren, however, must work hard to move away from this stigma when entering national politics. Republicans like Mitt Romney and Scott Brown on the other hand must portray themselves as centrists to gain and hold their blue state seats, yet then attempt to dispel this image on the national stage.

During that same time, just four Republicans have represented the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 2012 breakdown of registered Massachusetts voters by party affiliation was 36 percent Democrat, 11 percent Republican, and 53 percent other or unenrolled.

Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979 and 1983 to 1991, was a self-declared liberal (“a card carrying member of the ACLU”). Dukakis reached national attention when he sought and secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. George H. W. Bush and fellow Republicans jumped all over his liberalism, using the “L” word to attack Dukakis on everything from being soft on crime to weak on defense.

Early in the campaign, Dukakis distanced himself from the ideological label. Later, in response to these attacks, he tried to redefine the term: ”I’m a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy.” In the end, liberal-bashing by Bush was effective in a come-from-behind win in the general election.

John Kerry, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts under Dukakis and U.S. Senator from 1984-2013, entered the 2004 presidential race against George W. Bush. Like his father did against Dukakis, Bush repeatedly invoked the liberal accusation against Kerry. In response, Kerry associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DRC), a centrist group attempting to move the Democratic Party back from the left.

Kerry worked adamantly to redefine the party platform from traditional leftist positions. He portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative, along with increased defense spending and tougher welfare requirements, all traditionally non-liberal positions. However, Kerry never successfully distanced himself from the liberal label and lost the election by a relatively small margin.The blue state stigma haunted him.

These shifts become even more interesting when a Republican candidate from a blue state like Massachusetts attempts to “go national.” Mitt Romney transitioned from a moderate (some might even say progressive for a Republican) governor to a self-proclaimed “severely conservative” presidential candidate.

In 2002, while campaigning for governor in Massachusetts, Romney described himself as: “not a partisan Republican. I’m someone who is moderate, and my views are progressive.”

Not surprisingly, during the 2011 presidential primaries, these words were turned against him by his Republican rivals. Romney’s views on health care, revenue increases, climate change, and his evolving stance on abortion, all became further obstacles in his attempts to pacify the conservative elements of the Republican Party. His views may have been “severe” by Massachusetts standards, but nationally he was never able to sell himself as a true conservative.

For Romney, it was the “moderate” label and the inability to balance the extremes which became his Achilles heel. He lost his bid for the presidency to Barack Obama by a wide margin, even in his home state.

Republican Scott Brown, who won the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat in 2010, has struggled with labels both inside and outside of Massachusetts. Brown became a Republican hero, mainly because he seemed their best hope to tip the balance in the Senate by blocking the Democrat’s filibuster-proof margin. A viable Republican candidate trumps any more palatable, but less electable GOP choice. If it took a moderate Republican to win the crucial Senate seat in a blue state, the conservatives were for it.

Once elected, however, national GOP leaders, especially those in the tea party, had to distance themselves from him as a result of efforts on Brown’s part toward bipartisanship and appeasing his Massachusetts constituents. Democrats have accused Brown of being a typical Republican, while the GOP has waffled in backing him unconditionally.

Brown defines himself as an independent-minded “Scott Brown Republican,” a fiscal conservative and social moderate.

“A lot of senators do everything they can to avoid taking tough votes,” he remarked. “But, every single vote I’ve taken has been a tough vote for me.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

While this denial of a clear label worked for him in 2010, Brown subsequently lost his seat to the populist Democratic candidate in 2012, Elizabeth Warren. Brown’s next step, already testing the waters in Iowa, may be as a candidate for the 2016 presidential race, governor of Massachusetts, or a Senate seat in New Hampshire. His future, while uncertain, will surely include the need to continually re-frame himself to appeal to a wider swath of voters.

What do candidates in blue states need to do to be more appealing on the national level?

This brings us to Elizabeth Warren, the poster-child for the progressive element of the Democratic Party. Or, as her own supporters have claimed: “We are from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.”

Already, the centrist Democratic organization, Third Way, has publicly condemned Warren for her progressive views. Moderate Democrats are cautious to accept that what has worked for Warren in Massachusetts will work nationally without dividing the party.

So far, Warren has not backed down on championing liberal causes, particularly her stance on regulatory reform. She has become known for her ability to force discussion of difficult issues and her style has gained her respect, albeit not always agreement, among members of both parties.

It will be interesting to see if Warren gradually redirects her views toward the center. However, a shift to broaden her appeal does not seem to be her style and could backfire among those who see her as the progressive alternative. The question remains whether she can be successful where others have failed as a left-of-center national candidate. Or if she is destined to someday be the next George McGovern.

in their attempts to balance local appeal with national acceptance. An “R” next to a candidate’s name on a Massachusetts ballot is a scarlet letter; an “L” identity in a national campaign can be an equal impediment.

It remains to be seen whether the state will someday have an electable national candidate from either party. It may require a re-branding of what these characterizations mean or a complete disassociation with labels; both are difficult tasks to accomplish.