Anybody who felt sick to their stomach at this point in the 2016 election cycle ought to be purging their entire system through these dreary final days of 2018.
Regardless of how bleak a view one may have held for this country circa 2015, the facade that began to fade with the emergence of Donald Trump has been shredded to bits as his minions, whether slimy opportunists or true believers, have busted through the gates and zeroed in on the incompetent opposition.
Midterm elections are far more fascinating than general elections (and I find both fascinating, gross and depraved as they may be). Whereas the fight for the presidency usually forces both sides to refine their rhetoric a bit to promote something a little more palatable for the mainstream constituency that comes out just once every four years, it’s a different story in the off years.
Historically speaking, smaller state and local elections are more likely to bring out a ravenous minority that votes for everything—from president to attorney general to dog catcher. While not exclusively, it’s a particularly prominent phenomenon on the right; conservative voters are generally more affluent than liberal voters, so they don’t face the same obstacles getting to the polls. Also, older voters tend to be more conservative and vote at a higher clip, while younger, more liberal voters tend to be more transient and lack the same material connection to their local government.
Add that all together and it makes sense that the most recent midterms were defined by anti-Obama racism (2010) and anti-immigration xenophobia (2014). Politicians prop up the irrational fears of this small and fervent group, and they respond by electing or reelecting the politicians. And just when everything seems to be on the brink of collapse, when our government inched ever so close to being completely irredeemable, a presidential election would take place and reasonable minds would prevail. It was a dangerous formula, but one that seemed provide some sort of stability.
Then 2016 happened, and that formula was tossed in a blender when Trump rolled down an escalator to proclaim that Mexicans were rapists to a paid group of “supporters.” And then won.
On the somewhat bright side, this year hasn’t been entirely dystopian. For the first time in American history, a large swath of mainstream politicians have begun articulating real support for a nationalized healthcare system, and the top conservative argument against it is that such a program would destroy Medicare—the closest thing we have to a national healthcare program.
Beyond electoral politics, teachers strikes across the country have shown not only the need for properly funding the most basic of educational systems, but also the universal value of organizing. In Boston, the City Council recently voted to back striking Marriott workers.
Social Security, once a whipping post for both Republicans and conservative Democrats, has become a staple of more mainstream Dem campaigns and the foil to the GOP tax cuts.
Notably, regardless of the eventual big-picture outcomes, it has become clear that at nearly every level, the number of women in government is primed to skyrocket (though still won’t hit 50 percent representation anytime soon).
But for all the rays of hope provided by activists and grassroots campaigns, 2018 has stood out for the rash of awful actions spurring from a political system rotten to its core. At every corner, on a seemingly daily basis, politics promote and coddle violence, cruelty, intense voter suppression, sexual assault, racism, authoritarianism, nationalism, and jingoism—purely and unapologetically. It’s especially prevalent in places like Florida, where GOP gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis warned that his African-American opponent Andrew Gillum would “monkey this up,” or in Pennsylvania, where Republican House candidate Rick Saccone declared that liberals have a hatred for America and God.
Of course, the darkest center of this season isn’t reserved for one batshit pol or region of the country. It’s easy to point to a Florida, or Montana, or Alabama, or rural Pennsylvania and think that the madness is at arm’s length—but it isn’t anymore, and probably has never been.
Polls say that the madness won’t breach the gate in Mass, and so the Commonwealth has not received the same attention. But it’s here all the same, on the doorstep, waiting for a chance.
On the straightaway
Shortly after the September primary, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren headlined a “unity” event in Cambridge with soon-to-be congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jay Gonzalez, and a large slate of other Dems who will appear on the Nov 6 ballot.
“For almost two years now, the only thing the American people have gotten from Donald Trump and the Republicans is chaos, corruption, and hatefulness,” Warren said to a packed room at the Cambridge Community Center. “But listen up, Mr. President: Tick tock, tick tock.”
Warren gestured to her watch as the crowd of a couple hundred or so supporters broke into a tick-tock chant.
The Dems have been hosting events like this all around the Commonwealth since September, and if there’s anything that has truly unified the ticket, it’s been the campaign effort to frame Donald Trump as the real opponent in every race.
“Why is [Gov. Charlie Baker] supporting Geoff Diehl?” Gonzalez said, referring to the GOP Senate nominee, a Trump ally. “By supporting Diehl, Baker is supporting Trump.”
In Mass, the race for governor has been the one election where linking the GOP candidate to Trump has been slippery.
When it comes to rhetoric, Baker has said the right things to appease the Bay State’s deep-blue constituency. On policy, he has picked his battles to come off as a moderate independent who can work with politicians on both sides of the aisle and fight for some liberal social issues. All while soft-pedaling his conservative colors on issues like charter schools and transportation privatization and ignoring the hard-right bigotry dominating the national party.
But his independence has limits. Most recently, Baker’s decision to endorse the Republican ticket in Mass stands in opposition to his image as a moderate. Beyond Diehl, who chaired Trump’s presidential campaign in the Commonwealth, the GOP ticket includes attorney general candidate Jay McMahon, who promotes “extreme prosecution” for drug crimes and wants to target so-called sanctuary cities like Cambridge.
“I said during the primary season that I would support the ticket because a lot of people were concerned in the party that I would play favorites,” Baker said at a recent debate.
Linking Baker to Trump has mostly failed, at least according to polls. But putting him on the spot for his blanket support of Diehl has yielded at least one significant moment in this campaign. At a WGBH debate in Brighton, Baker dodged some questions about his endorsement. Before the moderators could move on, Gonzalez jumped in.
“One more question for him. Governor, are you going to vote for Geoff Diehl?”
The pause was excruciating. Five long seconds passed before co-host Jim Braude jumped in.
“I’m gonna vote for me,” Baker said. “I’m gonna vote for [Lt. Gov.] Karyn Polito. And I’m gonna, um, vote for a series of other candidates as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet with respect to that one.”
Braude pushed, “You don’t know if you’re going to vote for the guy you endorsed?”
To which Baker replied, “I haven’t made a decision.”
Then in jumped Gonzalez: “So you’re asking people in Massachusetts to vote for Geoff Diehl, and you’re not even gonna vote for him?”
“I said I was gonna support the ticket and I do,” Baker responded. “I’ll make my decision eventually and I’ll make sure people know.”
After the debate, Baker clarified that he would, in fact, vote for Diehl.
Diehl’s been easier for Dems to tie to Trump. Not only for the obvious reason that the state rep worked for the Trump campaign, but also because every candidate running in a Republican primary other than Baker had to spend months proving that they supported Trump to win the nomination.
The perception of the “Massachusetts Republican”—socially liberal pro-Chamber of Commerce types—was shattered this year. Nothing more perfectly illustrated this shift than the Mass Republican Convention.
Whereas in 2014, business-minded wonk Republicans and some Ron Paul libertarians gave speeches at the state GOP summit that focused on how Democrats can’t manage a budget, in 2018 they showed up at the DCU Center in Worcester with a new game plan, focusing on immigration and NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. One shirt for sale implied that Colin Kaepernick is a traitor; another one read, “Never apologize for being a patriot” and featured a Revolution-era minuteman firing a modern assault rifle. At least two people wore stickers depicting Baker as a clown that read: “I’ll never vote for a cuck.”
Diehl was the star of that convention. There was outrage when he failed to win the party’s endorsement on the first ballot, even though he won with ease on the second ballot and won the primary in a landslide.
“I am not a Mitch McConnell Republican,” Diehl said. “I’m a Massachusetts Republican.”
One interpretation of Diehl is that he’s an opportunist on the Trump train. A registered Democrat until 2009, Diehl was elected to the statehouse as a Republican in the 2010 Tea Party wave and rose to political prominence after leading the effort to repeal the state gas tax in 2014. Now, with the exception of a few tweaks to the GOP tax bill, Diehl has adopted the full hard-right platform. He touts his support of the controversial Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency; opposes Question 3, a transgender rights ballot initiative; and is a champion of Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.
Outside conservative circles, Diehl has failed to gain momentum. It was long expected that his campaign would get big-time cash for the sake of damaging Warren’s chances to run for president; Diehl’s loudest point of attack has been that Warren shouldn’t be re-elected because she is apparently mounting a 2020 presidential bid and won’t be devoted to the state. But as of last week, Diehl has less than $400,000 on hand to take on Warren’s multimillion-dollar reelection effort.
The major races in Mass offer little room for an upset. Polling has looked very good for the two incumbents, the most recent indicating that 30 percent of voters intend to split their ballot and reelect both Baker and Warren.
But a look down the ballot shows potential for a much more competitive and consequential midterm election.
Polling shows that at least one of the ballot initiatives is likely to be a close fight. Question 1, which would force hospitals to limit the amount of patients a nurse may be assigned to assist, would both provide for safer treatment and relief to overworked nurses. That race is in a dead heat, with the “no” campaign arguing that it would raise costs. (Another potential 2018 bright spot is the fact that questions 2 and 3, which seek to overturn Citizens United and protect transgender rights in Massachusetts, respectively, appear likely to win handily.)
In the race for Suffolk County District Attorney, Rachael Rollins, who emerged victorious from a five-candidate Democratic primary, faces independent Michael Maloney. Considered the most progressive candidate in the primary, Rollins has since published a list of 15 petty offenses that she has vowed not to prosecute. The more conservative Maloney has referred to the list as “crazy.”
North of Boston, Tram Nguyen has mounted a credible challenge to Rep. Jim Lyons (R-18th Essex), a fierce anti-choice conservative.
“Jim Lyons is a Tea Party Republican who was the campaign chair of Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign in Massachusetts,” Nguyen told Patch. “His extreme views do not reflect the values of this community.”
Come Election Day, we’ll know for sure.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.