Independent voters may be the key in Massachusetts GOP primary

Tom Benner

In the 2000 presidential race, one of John McCain’s few and biggest primary wins came in Massachusetts when the Arizona senator trounced then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 64 to 32 percent.

But to win the Bay State Republican primary on Feb. 5, McCain will have to top favorite son Mitt Romney, who built strong ties to the GOP base in his march to win the governor’s office in 2002.

Like eight years ago, the state’s independent voters may hold the key, according to Jean Inman of Avon, the McCain campaign’s state chairwoman in 2000 and again this year.

The senator’s appeal to independent voters helped him win in 2000 and will help him again, Inman said.

“The Republican establishment was supporting George Bush, and McCain had quite a battle,” Inman said about the 2000 primary race. “His broad-based appeal to Republicans and independents carried the day for him. I see that same appeal today.”

A State House News poll earlier this month found McCain beating Romney in Massachusetts. The poll found independents prefer McCain to Romney by a 47 to 20 percent margin.

Independents, who may vote in either the Republican or Democratic party primaries in Massachusetts, are the largest voting bloc – 13 percent of registered voters are Republican, 33 are Democrats, while the majority are unenrolled in a political party.

“Independents can swing things,” Inman said. “Gov. Romney has the home-field advantage, there’s no doubt about it. But we’re hopeful.”

But State Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, a Romney backer, said the independent voters may be less of a factor in the GOP primary because many of them are likely to take Democratic ballots as they did in New Hampshire’s primary.

McCain did not get the “big bump” from independents that he may have expected, Hedlund said.

Massachusetts Republican Party executive director Rob Willington said he welcomes the participation of independents in the Republican primary. “The more independents who come out in the Republican primary are future voters that the party will reach out to,” he said.

Still, Willington expects few, if any, campaign stops in Massachusetts by either McCain or Romney. Both are competing in more than 20 states holding primaries on Feb. 5.

McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, have not set up campaign offices in Massachusetts, Willington said.

Romney, who won the Republican primary in his native state of Michigan a few weeks ago, has sought to downplay expectations in his adopted home state of Massachusetts.

“I don’t have a prediction here in Massachusetts, haven’t looked at the numbers here,” Romney said earlier this month. “But I expect folks in Massachusetts will give me a good boost, and I’d love to win Massachusetts, of course. I’m known pretty well here.”

Tom Benner may be reached at

The Patriot Ledger