Why Republicans Never Had a Chance to Win the Massachusetts Special Senate Election

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 25 2013 8:06 PM

Still Waiting for the Next Scott Brown

Why Republicans never had a chance to win the Massachusetts special Senate election.

Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) arrives to meet with House Democrats and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden about a solution for the "fiscal cliff" on Capitol Hill in Washington January 1, 2013.
Everyone thought the contest between Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Gabriel Gomez would be close.

Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Shortly after 8 p.m. local time, Massachusetts election workers started cracking open ballot boxes and learning who won their U.S. Senate race. The winner will be Rep. Ed Markey, the 66-year-old Democratic congressman from Malden. The loser will be Gabriel Gomez, a likable-enough neophyte who tried and failed to turn his 24-carat résumé—Navy SEAL/private-equity money/Hispanic/handsome—into a surprise Republican win. Markey, who’s been in the House since the Jimmy Carter era, will move to the other side of Constitution Avenue.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Ever since February, when former Sen. Scott Brown passed on the race and seemed to end Republican hopes of winning it, Markey’s held a solid lead. The lead dragged as low as 4 points, but that was when Gomez was earning headlines like “The Next Scott Brown?” and “Is Gabriel Gomez the Next Scott Brown?” and (my personal favorite) “Is Gabriel Gomez the Next Scott Brown?”

He wasn’t, but neither was Scott Brown: Look again at that word in front of his name, “former.” Before the media tosses this election down the memory hole, I want to pay tribute to our incurable addiction to narratives and the search for Meaning in elections. The search for Meaning overpowers things like data and political science. Anyone who looked at the numbers and candidates and parties in March could have told you that Markey would win, and yet the race was covered as a toss-up.

Advertisement

Elections aren’t sequels with hot new actors. Massachusetts Republicans didn’t have much to play with after they lost Scott Brown. The solution: Convince the press that this election was a reprise of the 2010 special election that Brown won over state Attorney General Martha Coakley. The press blew that election so badly that ever since it’s been primed to watch for conservative surges out of nowhere. Coakley was a machine politician who’d been groomed for higher office, but not tested. But Markey had been crushing opponents for a generation. His smallest-ever win, 62 percent of the vote, was 21 years ago.

The comparison didn’t work. Coakley was a master of stupid gaffes. Early on, Republicans tried to portray Markey as a bumbler for comparing the Citizens United decision to Dred Scott and for bragging about all the technology that developed after he passed the 1992 Cable Act. But these weren’t actually gaffes.

Meanwhile, Gomez was nowhere near as talented as Brown. Gomez stuck to a series of talking points and lacked Brown’s grasp of legislative tactics. I didn’t notice this until his second debate with Markey, when the candidates were asked about the breaking Edward Snowden scandal. Markey seemed to know the basics of the story. Gomez emptied out a bowl of word salad:

I think this NSA and Snowden is just a direct reflection of what’s going on down in D.C. You know, in the campaign, the Congressman Markey—who, I’m sorry sir, but you are Washington, D.C.—is emblematic of what we face right now, and that’s a lack of confidence in what’s going on down there. You know, after 37 years, you know, I think it's time to restore some integrity and some honor down there, so that we the people, our first reaction always should not be mistrust and failure in our institutions down in D.C.

He wasn’t usually this bad, but he had other problems.

Gomez also had the wrong message. Again, it’s tough to compare the guy to Scott Brown. When Brown ran, he could promise voters that he’d be the #41st vote (that was the hashtag) against the Affordable Care Act. Even in Massachusetts, that was a winning issue—a (Republican) exit poll found that 52 percent of voters wanted Brown to kill the bill.

Gomez didn’t have an issue like that, so he ran against the stuff voters didn’t seem to like. One of them was “Washington.” Another was Republicans who were more conservative than him, such as Rep. Trent Franks. After Franks suggested that the “incidence of rape resulting from pregnancies” was low, Gomez called Franks a “moron.” (In the classic Gomez style, he kind of got stuck on that word and used it three times in one interview.)

This was a doomed strategy, because it didn’t have a ready audience. “It looks like the Gomez campaign brain trust has very little confidence in the work of political scientists,” wrote an actual political scientist, Jerold Duquette, 11 days ago. “Gomez’s cookie-cutter, candidate-centered, anti-politics, anti-Washington campaign is overtly directed at the voters who are least likely to turnout for a special election in June.”

Polls do not always mean what you want them to mean. The nadir of Gomez-hype came on June 10, when a Suffolk University poll found Markey’s lead dropping from 17 points to 7 points. The simple explanation was that the election was getting closer and the “likely voter” screen had tightened. But the pollster theorized that “Obama administration scandals, especially the Associated Press phone records scrutiny, have touched a nerve with likely voters.” In Washington and Boston, there was born a “scandals drag down Markey” narrative.

It was baseless. The Suffolk poll was an outlier, the only one in the field that showed Markey dropping. Few reports on the poll pointed out that the president’s popularity was still far higher than it had been during the Coakley swoon. People wanted the story without the context, as if just checking other polls wasn’t incredibly easy to do. Counting money was even easier.

Money and data really do matter. Markey and his allies decided to bury his opponents early, starting with primary opponent Rep. Stephen Lynch and continuing with Gomez. (Worth mentioning at this point: Lynch was also called “Scott Brown redux” before Markey pasted him.) Markey outraised Gomez $7.6 million to $2.3 million, and “green” Markey endorsers outspent Gomez endorsers 3–1.

The spending perfectly predicted the election. The Cook Political Report, which briefly rated the race a “toss-up,” did so because the spending seemed to confirm a Markey panic. “We changed the rating [to toss-up] and then began to see some other numbers, from even more reliable pollsters/sources, with a wider margin that convinced us that the race either hadn't closed or had widened back out,” says Charlie Cook. “The fact that the DSCC dumped in a seven-digit television buy around the same time suggested that we weren't alone in thinking that Markey did not have the race in the bag.” He didn’t, but he never thought he did, so he spent money.

That money’s going to undergird the coming (probably brief) Republican autopsy of this race. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported on donors “sitting out” the Massachusetts race even though its candidate “fits the profile that many in the party see as desirable.” Politico finally declared that Gomez was “no Scott Brown redux” in part because “big GOP money never came to save him.” It’s like we all slept through those 2012 elections where super PACs blitzed the airwaves for Republican Senate candidates and the Democrats won anyway.

No, the Gomez dream is going to fade away in a hurry. Last month, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that Republicans could make a race in Massachusetts if they bothered to. “Odds still favor Markey by virtue of the overwhelming Democratic advantage in the state,” wrote Rubin. “At a time when the president is in a second-term tailspin, it is an opportunity for Republicans to see if they can ‘send a message,’ turn out in force in an off-year election and grab one seat.” A month later, she insisted that Markey was “proving to be as awful a candidate as Martha Coakley, who lost to Scott Brown,” and gave a GOP operative anonymity to snark that Markey “couldn’t tell you who bats first for the Red Sox.” If only Republicans would pony up and buy ads, “it’s very possible Gomez could pull this out.”

Earlier today, while digging through the archives of the Gomez Golden Age, I joked on Twitter about these columns. Rubin challenged my reading comprehension skills. “I predicted he'd lose,” she wrote in an email.

One Next Scott Brown goes down tonight. Still, a next one waits to be born.