Yesterday’s Senate primaries in Massachusetts have set up an intriguing possibility. Is it possible for an attractive newcomer with moderate positions to steal a seat for the Republicans in a match-up against a dull, veteran Democratic politician? If that scenario sounds familiar, it should. That was the setup three years ago when Scott Brown knocked off Martha Coakley in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. This year, GOP nominee Gabriel Gomez is cast in the same role as Brown and he has the biography as well as the campaign funds to put up a stiff challenge against Democrat Representative Ed Markey.
But while Gomez must be considered to have a fighting chance, there are two factors that were decisive in 2010 that seem to be missing this time. In their absence, any Republican optimism about a repeat of Brown’s historic upset should be tempered with realism.
The first factor is the lack of a crusading issue that could galvanize the electorate. In 2010, Brown had such an issue in ObamaCare, which was even more unpopular in Massachusetts because it already had its own health care insurance bill courtesy of former governor Mitt Romney. Brown ran as the man who could prevent the Democrats from getting a filibuster-proof majority. That was the sort of thing that could attract independents to his cause as well as some Democrats.
Also missing from the Republican plan is an opponent who can do an excellent impression of a cardboard cutout. Markey is a grizzled veteran with more than 36 years in Congress, but the one thing he won’t do is repeat Martha Coakley’s mistake of running as if the election was already decided. Markey won’t underestimate Gomez. He’ll fight hard and play dirty. Markey will smear Gomez as a threat to Social Security as well as putting out slurs on his business record, effectively replaying the nasty attacks Democrats used against Romney last year.
But Gomez does have one thing going for him. The match-up in terms of personalities is all in his favor. The Republican is a young, successful former Navy SEAL. Markey is a walking, talking advertisement for term limits with his ’70s haircut and the fact that he has been in Congress since Gerald Ford was president. In an off-year election with a small turnout, that gives Gomez an opportunity.
But it should be remembered that even with a more favorable match-up, Brown barely beat Coakley. Gomez is going to have to prove to be every bit the campaigner that Brown proved to be and that is not an easy lift. In the next couple of months, we’ll find out if the tiny Massachusetts Republican party can come with a second political star in the space of three years. If Gomez is that star, he might win. But nothing short of a brilliant performance by Gomez will enable the Republicans to repeat their 2010 coup.