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Dissecting Republicans’ Troubles in New England

Amid the post-Election Day autopsies happening within the GOP, one of the greatest points of strategic divide is what went wrong in New England and how to move ahead.

In the next Congress, there won’t be a single Republican House member from the region and just two senators: Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Some in the party said the trouble this year was mechanical in nature and blame presidential turnout and polling for their losses. Others are of the thought that until the GOP changes its tone about social issues, any Republican will have a difficult time winning federal office in New England.

Former Rep. Christopher Shays resides solidly in the pessimistic camp.

“Pretty desperate,” the Connecticut Republican said in describing the state of the party in his native region. “The brand is not good in New England.”

The GOP’s “brand” problem comes up often in conversations with New England Republicans.

The last time congressional Republicans were practically decimated in the region was 2006 and 2008, banner years for Democrats. Then, the problem was Iraq. Now it is social issues. Shays and others blame Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin for exacerbating the problem. But they also blame the lengthy GOP presidential primary they said lasted too long and forced the eventual nominee too far to the right.

Both of New Hampshire’s Republican congressmen lost Nov. 6. But even more disappointing for party strategists was their inability to pick off either of the two vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in New England or win a competitive open seat in Connecticut.

Republican Richard Tisei, who challenged Rep. John F. Tierney in Massachusetts, lost by 1 point. In Connecticut’s 5th District, state Sen. Andrew Roraback lost by 3 points against Rep.-elect Elizabeth Esty.

Some Republicans argue that seats such as that one are still winnable and the GOP will do better next cycle. There is already talk about Roraback running again in 2014, although it is unclear if he is interested or if he could make it through another primary.

The moderate won a crowded GOP primary this year, but in the general election Democrats were successfully able to argue that a vote for him was a vote for the GOP’s national leadership.

“I view my race not as a reason for pessimism,” Roraback said. “I think my race was a reason for optimism for our party because it shows that victory is within reach for Republicans in New England.”

Still, conditions were ripe in 2012 for the GOP: a Northeasterner topped the presidential ballot, two incumbent Democrats were plagued with political and ethical problems, Republicans had strong recruitment and polling was promising. On a tactical level, the party seemed to be doing everything right.

One Washington-based strategist conceded the national party has a problem with tone but there were other issues — turnout and polling.

He pointed to Tisei’s race.

“His unfavorables were through the roof,” the strategist said of Tierney. But the vulnerable lawmaker was boosted by Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign turnout machine, which is likely what proved the difference in the race.

Like many Republicans, this strategist is frustrated with the party’s polling — which fostered a false hope heading into Election Day.

“We botched it,” the strategist said. “Polling defines so much of resource allocation that it absolutely had an effect.”

There was probably no bigger blind side for the GOP than Democratic Rep.-elect Carol Shea-Porter’s defeat of Republican Rep. Frank Guinta in New Hampshire. Many Republicans believed Romney would carry the state, but Obama won by 6 points and the downballot drag was too great for Guinta.

Republicans said that tactical, polling and strategic lessons will be learned and implemented in a midterm year when the coattails effect will be mitigated.

Collins is up in 2014, but she is not considered to be in electoral trouble. She is popular and has established her own strong political brand as a moderate.

If Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., moves to the administration, the GOP is hopeful it can again win a special election in Massachusetts — possibly with Brown as their candidate again.

Republicans are also looking to recruit a top candidate against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and take back one or both of the state’s House seats.

“New Hampshire may be where Republicans get a foothold to start working their way back,” a senior Capitol Hill staffer said.

Michael Fontneau is not nearly as optimistic. He is a Republican operative originally from Connecticut and worked for Shays for several cycles. He said the continual losses have sapped the enthusiasm out of donors, recruits and activists. The party is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I think the Northeast is just flat,” he said. “If you get beat in the face, you aren’t going to come back for more.”

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