How the Northeast Became Democratic, Part II: Massachusetts

Massachusetts in 2018 is most commonly connected to politics with liberal Democrats like the Kennedys and Elizabeth Warren. All 9 of its representatives and both senators are Democrats. Although the governor is Charlie Baker, a popular Republican, he is moderate and tends to stay out of matters unrelated to the governance of the state. In 1918, of its 16 representatives, 11 were Republicans, 4 were Democrats, and 1 was Independent. Both senators were Republican, and its governor was conservative Republican Samuel McCall, Calvin Coolidge’s political mentor. How did this change happen?

The story of Massachusetts’ change doesn’t begin in the 1960s or even the 1930s. The story in fact starts in the 1880s. Starting in that time, immigration accelerated from Central and Southern Europe. These immigrants were poor, Catholic, and many were illiterate and non-English speakers. These immigrants, like first generation immigrants of the past and present, tended to vote Democrat. Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was so concerned about immigration that he was active in supporting the Immigration Restriction League and served as a leading advocate for severe curbs in immigration, perhaps fearing not only cultural and racial differences, but political ones as well. Massachusetts Republicans, however, were not unified about immigration. Senator George Frisbie Hoar was one of the few major critics in his time of legislation barring Chinese immigration, which mostly impacted the west coast, yet he remembered the interests of the state party when he expressed his belief that Portuguese and Italian immigrants were “unfit for citizenship”, this group of people far more likely to immigrate to Massachusetts (Puelo, 27). Additionally, more Republican representatives in the state voted against the Immigration Act of 1917 than for, which was a comprehensive immigration limitation measure that pretty much banned anyone from immigrating who might prove inconvenient to American society. Despite Democratic influence being largely limited to Boston for a long time, in the early 20th century there were some warning signs for the GOP. In 1918, for the first time since 1851, the state elected a Democratic senator, David I. Walsh. Thanks in good measure to the election of senators by state legislatures as well as the lack of requirement that legislative districts be based on population, Republicans had been able to dominate the state’s Senate elections until the ratification of the 17th Amendment. Although Lodge finally was getting his wishes by the 1910s and 1920s in passage of immigration restriction legislation, for Massachusetts Republicans it was already too late. Birthrates of these immigrants outpaced those of the Republican WASPs and they tended to have bigger families (Connolly, 2016). Another warning sign was that in 1928, despite Republican Herbert Hoover winning in a landslide nationwide, the Democratic candidate Al Smith barely carried the Bay State.

Despite the Great Depression and FDR winning the state four times, Massachusetts remained one of the best states for the GOP. Many of its voters still voted Republicans into office on the state and local level, and the state proved one of his worst performances among the states he won. For instance, in 1936, the state gave Republicans the only takeover of a Senate seat from a Democrat and was FDR’s third worst performance in a state. The Senate loss, however, was due to FDR’s refusal to endorse the corrupt Governor James M. Curley. The state’s Democratic takeover was somewhat forestalled by Irish American opposition to FDR’s foreign policy given their antipathy to the British, with their anti-war sentiments being shared by Democratic Sen. David Walsh and Boston’s Republican Congressman George Tinkham. Also helpful to Republican prospects was that one of the GOP’s leading national figures was Rep. Joseph W. Martin Jr., who represented North Attleboro in Congress and led the House GOP from 1939 to 1959, serving as Speaker in two sessions. Although Truman won Massachusetts in 1948, Republicans were still in excellent shape in the state, having two senators and a majority of the state’s representatives. Unfortunately for them, change was rapidly approaching.

From Lodge to Kennedy: The Freefall of the Massachusetts GOP

Image result for John F. Kennedy

You know who this is!

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Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

The most prominent Massachusetts Democratic family is of course the Kennedys. Joseph P. Kennedy, the family’s grand patriarch, headed the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as served as FDR’s isolationist ambassador to Great Britain. In 1946, one of his sons, John F. Kennedy, won a Boston congressional seat. In 1952, he challenged the moderate Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Lodge Sr.’s grandson, who found himself too busy securing Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination and election to properly tend to his own campaign. Although he helped get Massachusetts to vote for a Republican for president for the first time in 28 years and the nation to vote for Ike, Lodge couldn’t get his own state to vote for him and Kennedy scored an election night upset.

From then forward, Republicans suffered a decline in fortunes in the state. Although Ike gained in votes in the state in 1956, the 1958 elections proved momentous for Democrats in the Northeast. The country was suffering a mild recession and the Soviets had launched Sputnik, which resulted in the loss of 48 seats in the House for Republicans as well as 12 seats in the Senate, placing the House out of reach for the Republicans for 36 years and the Senate for 22 years. That year the state legislature solidly shifted into Democratic control (Connolly, 2016). For contrast in how the state’s GOP fared in the 30 years since Eisenhower took office: In 1953, Republicans held 8 of 14 House seats and one of two Senate seats. The Speaker of the House was Bay State Republican Joe Martin. By 1983, they held one House seat, zero Senate seats, and the Speaker of the House was Bay State Democrat Tip O’Neill. In 1960, the state voted for John F. Kennedy by over 20 points. This was the worst rout that Republicans had suffered in a presidential election in the state, and they would suffer worse in the future. Massachusetts routinely voted Democrat up until 1980, when Reagan won the state by less than 0.2%, and he was greatly helped by 15% of the vote going to Independent John B. Anderson. In 1984, the president had the second worst electoral performance in the state, the only one being worse was the only state he lost: Minnesota. Massachusetts has not voted Republican in a presidential election since, and seems highly unlikely to do so in the near future.


Connolly, K. (2016, February 16). How Massachusetts Became a Blue State. State Library of Massachusetts.

Retrieved from

Puelo, S. (2007). The Boston Italians. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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