The Commonwealth’s second special election for the U.S. Senate — and fourth statewide election — in three-and-a-half years is on the books, and Ed Markey joins Elizabeth Warren to make up one of the most junior, and liberal, pairings in the Senate.
The trend predicted by polls played out at the ballot box. The 37 year Democratic veteran of the House played it cautiously, befitting his interminable career in Washington, and won by a comfortable, though not overwhelming margin.
Gabriel Gomez, the Republican neophyte with little name recognition but a great resume ran a very solid, condensed campaign and did himself, and the Massachusetts GOP, proud.
The electorate, though, as anticipated, let itself and the Commonwealth down with an abysmal turnout. Election fatigue from the carousel of recent races surely played a role and in the end 73 percent of the state’s voters sat this one out.
This unusual election cycle leaves us with a few key takeaways. Some are creatures of the uniqueness of this race, but others may indicate that shifts in political strategy, particularly by the GOP, are in order.
Takeaway 1: A missed opportunity?
Efforts like the Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” notwithstanding, this election begs the question of whether the national GOP is ready to address its demographic shortcomings.
On paper, Gomez would seem to be a dream candidate for a party trying to make headway with a growing Latino electorate. A son of Colombian immigrants, Gomez combined a stellar military career with high-level success in the private sector. Yet, even though this was the only game in town, national party support was tepid at best.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee provided reasonable assistance, but other national Republicans sat on the sidelines. There were some chicken-or-egg dynamics at work, as many in the GOP were waiting for the Gomez campaign to prove itself prior to jumping in. But it’s tough for a new statewide campaign to get off the ground without significant outside support. The half-hearted approach may have been due to Gomez distancing himself from GOP dogma on a range of issues.
Takeaway 2: Where was Scott Brown?
While the former senator did help Gomez raise money and record robocalls in recent weeks, he was nowhere to be found for most of the race.
Markey trotted out the president, the vice-president, and the first lady. Even former President Bill Clinton made an appearance.
Brown remains the de facto leader of the Massachusetts GOP and is still very popular with voters. More visible and consistent support from him may have helped. Brown would have injected some excitement into an otherwise morose election cycle. Then again, Brown may have been suffering from the same election fatigue afflicting much of the rest of the state.
Takeaway 3: It’s all about the Independents.
Statewide GOP candidates need to identify wedge issues earlier on to mobilize the Commonwealth’s large subset of Independents. They are there for the taking, but informed analysts believe the GOP needs to win over as much as 65 percent of Independents to succeed in a state where Democrats have a three-to-one registration advantage. Gomez was running about 10 percent short of this goal.
Takeaway 4: People’s Pledge
Though the “People’s Pledge” remains a sham, and Gomez was correct on principle to reject it, his campaign may have made a strategic error in not signing on. Markey not only used the pledge early on to distract voters from real issues like job creation, but he then brazenly turned around and raised millions from out-of-state donors to finance a stream of attack ads.
By signing, Gomez may have been able to limit Markey’s outside money and, by so doing, prevent him from subjecting viewers of the Stanley Cup playoffs from having to sit through the type of political ads that make voters shut down.
Takeaway 5: Massachusetts has lost a lot of clout in Congress.
Not only did the latest census result in the Commonwealth dropping a House seat, but iconic Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have been replaced by Warren and Markey, who are still B-listers in Washington. We’ll see how this works out for the state, particularly if the GOP is able to recapture the Senate in 2014.
Takeaway 6: Never, ever have an election in the summer.
The combination of stifling heat and polling booths creates a cognitive dissonance in a state where the turning of leaves usually signals election season. And what little oxygen there was in the media for this off-cycle election had already been consumed by coverage of the Marathon bombings, hockey playoffs, Bulger trial, and Aaron Hernandez.
Markey won’t have much time to savor his victory. The 17 months until the next Senate election will have to be a perpetual campaign if he wants to solidify his unimpressive political machinery. He’ll also have to continue to build his 2014 war chest to fend off a potential rematch against Gomez or, worse for him, a rejuvenated Brown.
The 2014 election cycle will also feature a governor’s race to top the ticket, so electoral dynamics will be different as more Independents will be motivated to vote out the incumbent party after eight years. For its part, in order to re-capture the governor’s office and perhaps even the Senate seat, the GOP must fire up its base and find candidates that appeal to Independents.
Though this wasn’t the outcome they were hoping for, it’s not an entirely gloomy picture for the Massachusetts GOP. This election allowed the state party to gain valuable experience, build organizations, and its bench. The president’s popularity, currently sagging even in Massachusetts, will also be a factor in 2014.
And so it goes, one day after the election, we’re already on to the next.
Editor’s note: Full disclosure: John’s spouse works at the firm Gabriel Gomez left prior to running for the U.S. Senate. John says, “They were professional colleagues, though they worked in different areas of the firm.”