For all the cynicism directed at the rational self-interest of American politicians, it does serve to simplify political interpretation: when we aren’t expressly told the motives of a given political actor, we can pretty well figure them out. The upcoming special Senate election in Massachusetts is a good example.
Last month, Julio Ricardo Varela took to the pages of the Boston Globe to ask a seemingly important question: “Gabriel Gomez is the GOP’s dream. So why isn’t the party backing him?” What he meant was that Gomez, the Republican nominee for the seat vacated by John Kerry, is a pathbreaking Hispanic candidate with an impressive background in both the military and the private sector. Yet he wasn’t getting much financial help from the national Republican Party.
Additionally, Politico reports that Scott Brown, the still popular former senator and GOP winner of the last Massachusetts special Senate election, “has been glaringly absent” from the campaign trail on behalf of Gomez, before musing about why that could be: “Whatever the reason, some Bay State Republicans believe that not fully deploying the most popular GOP pol in the state is a mistake.” At Roll Call, Stu Rothenberg provides an answer: An interesting election is not the same thing as a close election. He writes:
The current political environment in the Bay State doesn’t seem as bad for Democrats (or Obama) as it did in 2010, and Gomez lacks Brown’s political experience and proven campaign skills. For those reasons, he started with a harder road to travel than did Brown….
In addition, we have always believed that Gomez’s pro-life position on abortion gives Markey and his allies an obvious late line of attack that limits the Republican’s late appeal to undecided voters and caps his strength among self-identified Democrats. Because Brown was pro-choice, he didn’t have that problem….
Finally, we remained skeptical about Gomez’s winning coalition.
While Brown won the 2010 special election by drawing about one-fifth of Democrats, Gomez has never come close to that percentage; the Globe survey showed him winning only 12 percent. Given that, Gomez needs to win more than 60 percent of independents to have a chance to win, a very tall order. He has been winning among independents but drew only 51 percent in the Globe survey and as much as 55 percent in other polls.
The reason the national GOP isn’t putting its money on Gomez is most likely the same reason Scott Brown isn’t mugging for the cameras on Gomez’s behalf: no one thinks Gomez will win. And the polls are predicting an electoral result that bears them out. That doesn’t mean Gomez is a poor candidate–far from it. It just doesn’t matter all that much. As Rothenberg noted, not only did Brown run in unique conditions, he also held political positions that hewed to those of the voters in Massachusetts. And he still lost his reelection bid.
Those last two points are the most important. If Brown can’t win a general election despite incumbency, high approval ratings and a voting record truly representative of the state’s political identity, it will be difficult for a more conservative candidate to even keep the election close.
It can be argued that the GOP didn’t need to hold the purse strings so tightly this year because it’s an off year and there aren’t many elections demanding their funding and attention. But money spent is still money gone. And the winner of next week’s special election in Massachusetts is going to have to defend the seat next year in a 2014 general election. Few think Gomez can win this year, but even fewer think he could hold the seat next year, which means a 2013 investment in Gomez is either futile or a down payment on next year’s steep odds when the mid-term elections will stress both parties’ pocketbooks.