For the first time in its history, Boston is about to play host for one of the great spectacles of partisan politics, a national party convention. How fitting that this ritual event of the nation’s two-party system should take place just as we are about to find out whether it is possible to revive two-party competition in Massachusetts.

One of the peculiarities of recent Massachusetts politics is that we have managed to maintain a stubbornly divided state government, with Republicans occupying the executive branch and Democrats controlling the Legislature for more than a dozen years, even though we have only one functioning political party, the Democrats. As a result, we’ve all but lost our native ability to use any but the most high-profile elections to hold meaningful conversations on where the Commonwealth is—or should be—heading.

To be sure, we’ve had spirited gubernatorial contests every four years from 1990 on, and a couple of vigorous races for the US Senate along the way. In those half-dozen marquee events, Republican nominees have acquitted themselves stunningly well, considering the odds against them, emerging with a solid 4-2 won-lost record; William Weld posted a 2-1 record personally, Mitt Romney 1-1, and Paul Cellucci 1-0. In other signs of life in the GOP, Joe Malone won two statewide elections for treasurer in the 1990s, while Republicans Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen held congressional seats for two terms apiece.

Despite this performance, the Republican Party has never moved off the dime in party registration, holding at roughly 13 percent of the electorate. And the GOP’s presence in the state Legislature has continued to slide throughout this period, making the party ever more top-heavy politically. At the start of Weld’s two terms, Republican ranks in the state Senate were sufficient to sustain a gubernatorial veto, but that leverage vanished with the first midterm election, in 1992, and the party’s caucus in the General Court has dwindled further since.

Even worse, the GOP seemed to lose interest in even competing for legislative offices. In 2002, electoral competition reached a nadir in the Bay State, with just 31 percent of seats in the House contested by candidates from both major parties, the lowest rate since the body was reduced from 240 members to 160 in 1978. Among the 50 states, only South Carolina had fewer competitive elections for its lower legislative body that year (see State of the States, CW, Fall 2002). In the Senate, only 12 of 40 seats had Republicans facing off against Democrats that November. As a result, the Senate began the current session with just six Republican members, the same as last session. (In a show of largesse appropriate to a body that prides itself on collegiality, the Democratic leadership agreed at the start of the 2001-02 session to change its rules so that the merry band of GOP senators could at least force a roll-call vote.)

But this year, that’s all changed—well, some of it, anyway. Gov. Mitt Romney, working with his hand-picked party chairman, Darrell Crate, has accomplished what his predecessors never bothered to do (Weld) or were unable to pull off (Cellucci): field a slate of candidates capable of vying for most, though still not all, of the seats in the state Legislature. Compared with past showings, the party’s candidates for 125 House and Senate seats, packaged under Romney’s banner of Team Reform, are nothing short of a bonanza. To aid his cause of party revival, Romney has not only promised fundraising help but also assistance in the form of party-funded “governor’s fellows” —21 young people given training, a $2,000 stipend, and free housing in exchange for staffing key state rep and Senate campaigns.

This evidence of democracy breaking out all over has not exactly been met with universal acclaim. That Democrats would not celebrate the return of two-party politics is understandable, though the level of hostility to Romney’s attempt to gain some ballast in the Legislature has been a reminder of just how foreign a notion electoral competition has become here. “He wants to have a war with the Legislature,” state Democratic Party chairman Philip Johnston declared to The Boston Globe, “and if that’s the case, in John Kerry’s words, bring it on.”

The legislative leadership has also taken this holding of an actual election as a personal and institutional affront, with House and Senate leaders rallying to the aid of their members. In May, House Speaker Thomas Finneran’s “Victory Fund” sought to undercut Romney’s “reform” credentials—and, by extension, those of his team of candidates—by means of a glossy flier comparing “Mitt’s Myths” with “Reality,” as House Ways and Means chairman John Rogers dissected the governor’s budget proposals, including the abolition of the Inspector General’s office, the Turnpike merger, and pension overhaul.

Still, at this point, it’s hard to know whether this burst of political vitality is going to amount to much. It’s not clear that cutting the income tax rate by 0.3 percent and merging the Turnpike with MassHighway will make enough of a “reform” platform to propel GOP newcomers (only 14 of the Republican non-incumbent candidates have held or run for office before) past incumbent Democrats. “They did a good job recruiting those folks,” Democratic Party chief Johnston told Globe columnist Scot Lehigh. “And now we have to do a good job of beating them.” It’s hard not to see most of Team Reform’s initial contests turning out just that way.

Though the Republicans picked up one state Senate seat when Scott Brown won the special election to replace Sen. Cheryl Jacques earlier this year, bringing their number to seven, party officials acknowledge they are unlikely to reach the veto-sustaining goal of 14 in one election cycle. How many Team Reform neophytes, drawn into the fray this year by the Romney charm, are going to have the stomach to come back for a second try in two years, let alone work their way up the political career ladder from school committee to selectman, from city councilor to state rep, from state rep to state senator, as the Democrats are used to doing? In the long run, the most promising development of 2004 for the Republicans may not be Team Romney at all, but Charlie Baker, boy wonder of the Weld administration and current CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, becoming top vote-getter for selectman in his hometown of Swampscott.

A viable two-party system up and down the political food chain may devoutly to be wished for in Massachusetts, but it could be a long time in the making. In the meantime, the Democrats remain this state’s big-tent party, encompassing fiscal conservatives and tax-and-spenders, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, gay marriage supporters and gay marriage opponents. Divisions among Democrats have more than once spilled over into the electoral arena, as in the Dukakis-King grudge matches of 1978 and ’82, and in the McGee-Keverian House leadership battle, which played out in state-rep primary contests all across the state in 1984. But in recent years, the very idea of challenging an incumbent, for any office, has been taken as a sign of bad manners.

The national Democrats are gathering in the FleetCenter to build party unity for November’s election. But to make elections meaningful in Massachusetts, what we could use from the state’s Democrats is a bit more factionalism.