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Strangers in A Strange Land: The New England Political Experience Circa 2015

Nova Anglia (New England) Map 1759.
Nova Anglia (New England) Map 1759.
Nova Anglia (New England) Map 1759.
Nova Anglia (New England) Map 1759.

In a Congress dominated by Republicans whose two operating principles were: A.) Do little or nothing that conformed to economic reality, and B.) Oppose any measure associated with Democratic President Obama; it was something of a miracle that elected New Englanders achieved anything at all.

But they did. And although it’s doubtful that the handful of hard-fought gains will make it into the history books, the incremental changes – such as moving toward a more rational opioid policy – were welcomed by those suffering the scourge.

At the moment, New England’s political muscle is scant. Chalk that up to an overwhelmingly Democratic delegation being in a minority, and the fact that few of the Republicans have any seniority worth writing home about. The bottom line: According to Roll Call’s Clout Index, when it comes to influence Massachusetts ranks 28th, Rhode Island 42nd, Maine 44th, and New Hampshire 49th.

As a result, New Englanders were at best supporting players in the dramas that played out on Capitol Hill: the resignation of Speaker John Boehner and selection of his replacement, Paul Ryan; passage of major education and transportation-funding legislation; unsuccessful attempts to block President Barack Obama’s big trade and nuclear non-proliferation deals; and deals to end sequestration, fund the government, and raise the debt ceiling to avoid catastrophe.

New Englanders found success in smaller increments. They pushed through a few smaller-scale bills, helped shape details of larger legislative packages, and secured as much funding as possible for their states and districts. Although it was less than was hoped for, that funding was the Bay State’s biggest disaster-assistance award ever – to the tune of $129 million.

Baker and those Democratic lawmakers (as already noted) also worked together on opioid abuse, an issue that was a top priority for Massachusetts’s officials in Washington and Boston.

Perhaps those areas of cooperation contributed to complaints among Democratic party faithful in the Commonwealth, who were desperately looking for someone to lead criticism of the remarkably popular Baker.

The two who most often were willing to publicly criticize the incumbent Republican Governor were two of the newest in Washington: Katherine Clark and Seth Moulton. Both, as a result, were the subjects of rumors in Boston media, speculating that they might be planning to run against Baker in 2018.

Massachusetts Democrats in Washington, and their nearby colleagues, were more often to be found criticizing national Republicans. They could be found railing against Republican initiatives, of course. But they also enjoyed introducing bills with long odds against passage, but strong potential for exposing GOP opposition – if not hypocrisy.

For example, Rhode Island’s David Cicilline attracted attention with an LGBT rights bill, and again in December with a gun control bill. Both involved press conferences well attended by Democrats eager to criticize Republicans as out-of-touch obstructionists.

But interestingly, the loudest voices from the area were often raised against their own party.

Elizabeth Warren – after finally squelching speculation of a Presidential run – frequently pushed President Barack Obama, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats to take stronger actions against lenders. She even personally attacked members of the administration: in June, Warren very publicly criticized Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White, and a few months later she went after Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Melvin Watt.

Ed Markey was an early and strong opponent of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and accompanying fast-track authority. Warren and all of the area’s House Democrats joined him.

Markey was also critical of the Obama administration’s slow movement on climate change regulations, as was Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. However, they both ultimately supported and praised the Paris agreement reached at the end of the year.

Jim McGovern was another frequent critic of Obama, particularly on foreign policy. He expressed strong dissent on the administration’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan, and continues to lead efforts to force Congress to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force. On that last issue, he enters 2016 with a new, strong ally in Speaker Paul Ryan.

The area’s few Republicans were also frequently seen opposing their own party this year.

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire publicly took on Senate conservatives, including Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who wanted to risk a government shutdown over a demand to defund Planned Parenthood.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine also sided against most of her party on that showdown.

Campaign politics in 2016

For Ayotte, taking on her own party will likely continue to be good politics in the coming year. Despite threats of a primary challenger from the right, none have yet emerged. That means she’ll be more focused on the expected general election matchup against current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan.

New England’s two Republican House members are also facing tough re-election prospects next year. Frank Guinta in New Hampshire has seen his popularity plummet after the Federal Elections Commission found that he improperly accepted large contributions from his parents, claiming it was his own money.

And Bruce Poliquin of Maine will have a tough challenge, possibly against the Democrat he beat in 2014, Emily Cain.

The respected Cook Political Report currently rates both Guinta’s and Poliquin’s races as Toss Ups.

But Democrats in the area appear to be free of such concerns. There is still time for credible challengers to come forward – or even for incumbents to announce retirement -- but as of now the Cook Report has all but one Democratic New England House member rated “Safe” for re-election. The exception, Elizabeth Esty of northwest Connecticut, is considered likely to win, but not quite a sure thing.

The “Safe” appellation also applies to the only two New England Democrats up for re-election in 2016, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

That, and the likely stagnation of election-year Congress, should mean that you’ll see the area’s Democrats spend a lot of 2016 fighting the national partisan election battles. That’s already been clear in a steady stream of them stumping for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.

That’s just a start, though. Next year, they’ll be helping the Democratic Presidential nominee, and their colleagues in the House and Senate, on the hustings, with fundraising, and by pushing issues in Washington.

Social media picture of the week

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline spent Christmas with troops in Baghdad, as shown in this photo tweeted by NBC 10 WJAR.

https://twitter.com/NBC10/status/680497376189091840

Copyright 2015 GBH