Why, Andy Card?

At least he’s not Jack the Tongue. That’s probably the reaction of many Massachusetts Republicans to the news that Andy

At least he’s not Jack the Tongue.

That’s probably the reaction of many Massachusetts Republicans to the news that Andy Card, best known as George W. Bush’s chief of staff for five years, may soon join the special election race to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat.

Card, 62, actually has a long history in Massachusetts politics. He was a state representative for four terms in the late ’70s and early ’80s and sought the Republican nomination for governor back in 1982, losing a three-way primary to John Winthrop Sears, a former Boston city councilman (who was trounced by Michael Dukakis in the fall).

Back in those days, Bay State Republicans could talk seriously about winning House and Senate races. They were almost always underdogs, but the right candidate—i.e. someone from the moderate-to-liberal tradition that produced the likes of Leverett Saltonstall, Frank Sargent and Ed Brooke (like Card is, or at least was back then)—running in the right year could have a shot.

That is no longer the case. No Massachusetts Republican has won a Senate election since Brooke was re-elected to his second and final term in 1972. And since 1996, when two Republicans who had lucked into office in 1992 thanks to scandal were swept out, the state’s 10-member House delegation has been all-Democratic—the largest single party House delegation in the country.

The struggle for Massachusetts Republicans has gone from difficult to hopeless thanks largely to the national G.O.P. revolution in 1994. Prior to that, middle-of-the-road Bay State voters, who tend to be more liberal on cultural issues and less so on fiscal ones, could tell themselves that they had a place under the G.O.P.’s Big Tent. But the sudden primacy of Newt Gingrich and Southern-flavored evangelical conservatism sent them fleeing, and they’ve never returned.

Consequently, the quality of the candidates the G.O.P. has run for federal office has declined—sometimes rather comically.

This was the case back in 2000, when state Republican leaders enthusiastically sent word that they’d found a dynamic, exciting political newcomer to take on Ted Kennedy: Jack E. Robinson III, a 39-year-old black Republican and entrepreneur who was willing to spend more than $1 million of his own money.
It took about 24 hours for the press to learn that, among other things, he’d previously committed plagiarism, his ex-girlfriend had filed a restraining order against him, he’d been arrested for drunk driving, he probably wasn’t the multimillionaire he’d hinted to Republican leaders he was, and he wasn’t prepared to spend much money on his own campaign. Also, while calling in to a radio show to defend himself against these revelations, a distracted Robinson drove off the road, becoming the first known candidate to get into an auto accident on live radio.

Then, in an episode still snickered at in Massachusetts, a second ex-girlfriend came forward to tell The Boston Globe about her “date from hell” with Robinson a few years earlier—in which (she alleged) he showed up drunk, guzzled a bottle of champagne, and then, on the way to his car, groped and forcibly French-kissed her. The legend of “Jack the Tongue” was thusly born.

Republican leaders withdrew their support from Robinson, but couldn’t find another candidate for a kamikaze run against Kennedy. Robinson petitioned his way onto the ballot, won the G.O.P. nomination without opposition, and finished with 13 percent in November—just one point ahead of the Libertarian nominee, and 62 behind Kennedy.

That was undeniably the low point for the post-’94 G.O.P. in Massachusetts, but other years haven’t been that much better. In 2002, the party failed to find a candidate to oppose John Kerry, and in 2006 and 2008 it fielded only token opposition to the Democratic incumbents.

It is in this context that Card’s current interest in a Senate campaign is peculiar.
A close Bush family friend, he transitioned from state to national politics after his ’82 gubernatorial run, ultimately serving as the first President Bush’s deputy chief of staff and, later, Transportation secretary. After a lucrative stint with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, he returned to the White House in 2001 as the second President Bush’s chief of staff.

Even as he’s played on the national stage, though, Card’s name has periodically been connected to various offices in Massachusetts. It’s always been expected that, sooner or later, he’d come home and try to complete the unfinished business on 1982.

But running for the Senate in 2009? Surely, Card should recognize the futility. When it comes to federal office, the G.O.P. brand is toxic in Massachusetts. And while the old Andy Card—the moderate state representative—might once have been marketable across the state, he’s now seen only as a key player in the Big Bad Bush Machine. In other words, if there is a Republican who can win a Senate election in Massachusetts (which there isn’t), it certainly isn’t Card.

Perhaps he’d have more luck running for governor, an office the G.O.P. has controlled for 16 of the past 19 years. Even as Massachusetts voters were fleeing Republican Senate and House candidates, they kept electing moderate (Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci) or moderate-seeming (Mitt Romney) Republicans to the corner office. And they could do so again next year, with Democratic Governor Deval Patrick’s poll numbers looking very ominous.

But the state G.O.P. establishment has already rallied around Charlie Baker, a former Weld lieutenant and Harvard Pilgrim CEO, for the governor’s race, so there’s really no room for Card. And the G.O.P. is happier to have Baker for that race, since he doesn’t have Card’s Bush baggage. So Card, if he really wants to take another statewide shot, is stuck with the Senate race.

That ’82 gubernatorial campaign was supposed to be a shakedown cruise for the up-and-coming Card, a way to build a name for a future run. He thought he’d accomplish the same thing by heading off to Washington, making a name there, and then triumphantly returning to claim the governorship or a Senate seat. But he miscalculated, and it shows just how much the appeal of the national G.O.P. has narrowed: A few decades ago, service in a Republican administration could be an asset even in Massachusetts. Today, it is nothing but a lethal liability.

Why, Andy Card?