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. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

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.

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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.)