We have fifty states in the Union, and nearly every one of them has experienced some time as a “battleground” or “bellweather” state.
New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania competed with each other for election-deciding status for nearly two centuries – and Ohio still holds that moniker. The South and the rest of the Midwest had their time in the sun during the latter half of the 20th Century; the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, the latter half of the 19th. California decided the election of 1916 and nearly carried favorite son into the White House in 1960 (it accomplished the mission in 1968). Even Alaska and Hawaii had a competitive period – albeit one that vanished for each soon after admission.
New England had its own period of uncertainty – mostly during the Second Party system for New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and to a lesser extent Connecticut. Even tiny Rhode Island achieved “battleground” status in the 1840s – literally – during the Dorr War.
Massachusetts, however, has – practically alone – seemed to avoid national political competition (local and state-government offices are, as with all states, an entirely different story). From the moment political parties took shape in the young Republic, the Bay State has always been seen as the big-government party’s redoubt. From the Federalists, to the National Republicans/Whigs, followed by the pre-Depression Republicans, and finally the post-Depression Democrats: all could consider the New England Commonwealth a stone-cold, lead-pipe lock. Of course, there were a few times Massachusetts bucked its historical trend, but usually that was due to national landslides it could not resist: Jefferson’s re-election in 1804, Monroe’s elections, Taft and Roosevelt splitting a Republican landslide neatly in half in 1912, and the Eisenhower/Reagan landslides, but in all of these, the Bay State was bringing up the rear, with the outsiders riding a national wave to narrowly overcome the political equivalent of Helm’s Deep.
That said, I did write “seemed.“ In fact, there have been two occasions where Massachusetts threw everyone a curve – and those who were paying attention would have seen major national realignment in the offing. They were: 1850 and 1928.
In the first, the state legislature was responsible for electing a U.S. Senator, thus providing a national importance to the profile of the state capitol (or General Court, as it’s called up there). In the rest of America, 1850 was the year of the Compromise, the year the nation was pulled back slowly and mythically from the brink by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (President Millard Fillmore and Stephen A. Douglas deserved the true “honor,” but for various reasons, they were happy to offload it). In Massachusetts, however, Webster’s role in the Compromise (in particluar the odious Fugitive Slave Law) infuriated voters to such as extent that they rejected Webster’s Whig Party (which dominated Bay State politics since its founding) for a high-maintenance but partially stable alliance between Free-Soilers and Democrats. That year, Charles Sumner became the only Massachusetts Senator in the Second Party era not to come from the Whigs or their National Republican predecessors. Webster had already jumped ship for thr Fillmore Cabinet, but his political capital crashed.
Massachusetts politics went into an unprecedented and unequaled period of instability: Free-Soil/Democrat, Whig, Know-Nothing (that’s for another post) before finally settling on the Republicans in 1856. In the meantime, the Whig Party disappeared everywhere outside New York by 1854 (one year later, Empire State Whig leaders renamed themselves Republicans).
The other year (1928) was a similar surprise. Irish immigrants had been eroding the Republican majority in Massachusetts for decades. Democrats even elected a U.S. Senator by popular vote in 1918. Calvin Coolidge - elected Governor in 1918, Vice President in 1920, and President in 1924 – suppressed the trend before it could be noticed – but it returned with a vengeance in 1928 when Al Smith became the first Democrat to ever win the Bay State’s electoral votes. At the time, more political junkies paid attention to the Republicans’ surprise strength in the South, but Massachusetts was the canary in the coal mine for the GOP, which was about to lose the nation’s major urban centers at the national level. By 1932, Massachusetts was part of the FDR landslide, and the rest is history.
We need to keep in mind today just how rare Scott Brown’s victory is. The smaller government party just doesn’t win in Massachusetts – unless a major realignment is on the way.
I’m not saying it’s a done deal – the future never is. I am saying this: don’t be surprised if 2010 follows 1850 and 1928 as a year where the Bay State showed the way, and the nation followed.