Republicans Must Manage Their Expectations in the Massachusetts Special Election

Charlie Cook

Aside from all of the controversies swirling around President Obama, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the intelligence community, the top political question these days is whether Republicans really have a good shot at picking up a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in the June 25 special election. Special elections, with low voter turnout, are often highly volatile and difficult to predict, and this introduces an element of uncertainty where normal rules of thumb usually don’t apply.

When John Kerry was nominated secretary of State, Republicans rubbed their hands in delight with the idea of having former Sen. Scott Brown pulling off yet another special-election upset in such a decidedly blue, Democratic state. It was with GOP dismay that Brown opted not to run. The party then became intrigued with the idea of Gabriel Gomez, a 48-year-old Naval Academy and Harvard Business School graduate, former Navy SEAL, and carrier pilot, who is in the private-equity business. Although Gomez is a political novice who has never sought public office before, Republicans hope his résumé and a stick-to-the-script campaign style might make up for lack of experience, something that Brown had when he first ran for the Senate.

Rep. Edward Markey, the Democratic nominee, was not necessarily an easier or tougher target for Gomez than state Attorney General Martha Coakley was for Brown in the January 2010 special election held to fill the seat vacated by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Coakley’s baggage was the fact that she served in Massachusetts state government, which is held in fairly low regard in the state; Markey’s burden is that he has been in Congress since 1976. Moreover, he has not had to deal with a hotly contested race of any kind since Moby Dick was a guppy (that would be 1984), and has never faced a remotely serious Republican opponent. Markey also holds the reputation of being the member of the Massachusetts delegation who has spent the least time back in the state, something that just isn’t a problem when running for reelection in a district that any Democrat could win blindfolded.

Markey’s campaign has been uninspiring and underwhelming, giving Republicans further hope that an upset is possible. For a time, polls were all over the map, with results ranging from as close as 3 or 4 points—basically within the surveys’ margins of error—to Markey advantages of 17 and 19 points. Three weeks ago, several polls showed Markey with an anemic lead, nothing approaching what one might expect in a state where Democrats have won the presidential race by 20 or more points in five consecutive elections. These findings prompted The Cook Political Report to shift its rating from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss-Up.” Markey is clearly underperforming, but is it bad enough to allow for an upset in a low-turnout special election, in what is an extremely Democratic state?

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the (pro-Democratic) Senate Majority PAC added to the story line that the race had closed when they combined to purchase $1.25 million in television time late last week. Both groups used their “go to” arguments against Republicans. They accused Gomez of supporting tax cuts for the wealthy and threatening Social Security benefits. These ads are the first by outside groups in the general election, although Markey has been getting help with voter contact from the League of Conservation Voters. The question is whether it was panic on the part of Democrats or just insurance; it looks more like the latter. No Republican outside groups have come to Gomez’s aid yet.

Last week’s candidate debate was inconclusive. Gomez didn’t do badly, but he needed both a home-run performance and for Markey to make a big mistake—neither of which happened. One Republican poll, from McLaughlin and Associates, shows Markey’s edge down to next to nothing: 1 point, or 45 percent to 44 percent. A preponderance of recent polling puts Markey’s lead as considerably wider, although still unimpressive given the state. Another debate is Tuesday night, but the pressure is on Gomez to register a clear win; otherwise this race may produce an outcome for the GOP as disappointing as last year’s 5-point defeat of Brown by Elizabeth Warren.

With another two weeks to go, the race certainly isn’t over, but the chance of an upset looks decidedly less likely today than three or four weeks ago.