A West Wing television episode from nearly 20 years ago featured fictional Democratic political operative Josh Lyman musing about whether voters in his party were “dumb” enough to “nominate another liberal, academic former governor from New England.”
Though not an academic like fictional New Hampshire Gov. Jed Bartlet, who went on to win the presidency, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s entry into the 2020 Democratic primary will test the underlying premise of that theory.
Massachusetts was once a presidential powerhouse state as home to the father-son team John Adams and John Quincy Adams, who occupied the White House from 1797 to 1801 and 1825 to 1829, respectively. Most famously, President John F. Kennedy represented Massachusetts in the House and Senate before presiding in the Oval Office from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. Even President George H.W. Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1924, though he grew up in Connecticut and adopted Texas as his home state.
But in recent decades, the notion of Massachusetts as a source of presidents has become a national joke of sorts, with several losing nominees from both parties hailing from the state.
Patrick, 63, was derided this week for his change of heart about wading into the primary less than 100 days before the opening nominating contests, joining a historically large field with distinct name recognition, fundraising, and organizational disadvantages. The two-term Massachusetts governor’s campaign was also lambasted, given all living former male chief executives from his state have sought the White House. The candidate factory produced Democratic 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and Bill Weld, who was the 2016 Libertarian vice presidential nominee before re-registering with the GOP to challenge President Trump this cycle.
And in 2004, then-Sen. John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee, losing to Republican President George W. Bush.
“Delusion runs deep in the vein of Massachusetts politicians thinking of running for president,” Romney, finishing out his first year as a Republican senator from Utah, mused to reporters on Capitol Hill last week when asked if he had any advice for his Massachusetts gubernatorial successor, both of whom worked for Bain Capital.
Dewey Square Group’s Mary Anne Marsh told the Washington Examiner the tradition stems from the “Camelot era” following Kennedy’s death because “politics became everything in Massachusetts,” leading the state to turn out “some pretty terrific politicians.”
“So, anyone who ascended to the upper echelons of politics felt groomed to think that they could run for president too. That they could recapture that magic,” the Democratic strategist said. “And then, there’s the practical fact that Massachusetts is so close to New Hampshire. The Boston media market really is the south New Hampshire media market. Many people live in New Hampshire but work in Massachusetts. So you have an inherent advantage in the first important primary in the process.”
Patrick’s late-starting bid also sets up a clash between him and the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, a top-tier Democratic candidate whose main rivals at this point include former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Warren, 70, announced her exploratory committee nearly 11 months ago, on the last day of 2018.
Patrick told reporters in New Hampshire after filing his candidacy he had spoken to Warren the night before, describing it as a “hard conversation for both of us.” While praising her team as “the best and most disciplined campaign out there,” he questioned the magnitude of her agenda. The senator last week name-checked Patrick as a possible member of her Cabinet should there be a Warren administration come January 2021.
For Marsh, despite Patrick’s lane being more centrist than Warren’s, he is trying to “dent” her in New Hampshire. Warren had a better shot at the White House against President Trump, she said.
“At this point, people know and like Elizabeth Warren more than Deval Patrick. Yes, they know Patrick from his years as governor, but it’s been five years since he’s been governor,” she said. “Never say never, but it’s virtually impossible for Patrick to make a mark early enough in the primary to get enough delegates to win the nomination. Because once you’re behind, you’re behind in this system. With Elizabeth Warren, I think she’s someone who could take on Trump because she knows exactly how to go after him, and her policies are in stark contrast to not only what he said he would do, but what he did.”
Megan Ottens-Sargent, Aquinnah Town Democratic Committee chair and past leader of Martha Vineyard’s Democratic Council, endorsed Sanders in 2016 but is keeping an open mind about the 2020 crop. To Ottens-Sargent, Massachusetts’ generation of presidential candidates can also be explained by the state’s history as a lab for progressive policies such as gun control and more social spending on healthcare.
Though Dukakis and Kerry were each tagged as a “Massachusetts liberal,” each lost due to strategic and tactical errors in their presidential campaigns, not because of their home state, Ottens-Sargent told the Washington Examiner.
Even with two 2020 Democrats from Massachusetts in the race, many of their current or former constituents are still undecided, Ottens-Sargent said.
“There’s this alchemy going on where we’re all wondering, ‘Gosh, should we support a middle-of-the-road candidate or should we try to inspire change or with more progressive candidates like Warren or Sanders?’” Ottens-Sargent said.
As for Patrick’s presidential race announcement, “I did speak to someone in particular who’s in local government, and she was not impressed,” Ottens-Sargent said. “When you look at his resume, he’s quite corporate if you’re a liberal Massachusetts Democrat.”
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