The following is the opening paragraph of a recent Boston Globe editorial. Ill conceived, incorrect editorials are not uncommon, but I have to say that this Globe editorial has it profoundly wrong. It would be malpractice on my part as a political scientist not to correct them. Also, their effort to contribute to de-bunking a popular “myth” here is acutely ironic because what they are actually doing is propagating a myth, albeit one of more recent vintage.
“SCOTT BROWN’S 2010 Senate victory dispelled a lot of myths about Massachusetts — that Republicans couldn’t win statewide races for anything but governor; that lesser-known candidates couldn’t raise enough money to compete in a state full of heavyweights; and that a politician with a conservative message, tailored to the challenges of the moment, would never be able to get traction in a liberal electorate.”
All of these conclusions suffer from a serious misunderstanding of context. The contextual dynamics of the 2010 special election that sent Scott Brown to Washington were very unique. They have not reoccurred since and are almost certainly not going to reoccur any time soon. This editorial also confirms the Globe editors’ persistent misunderstanding of the 2012 race between Warren and Brown, which -amazingly- they continue to characterize incorrectly as a “competitive” contest.
The implication that Scott Brown’s 2010 victory revealed any cracks in the conventional wisdom about the Republican Party’s viability in state elections is wrong. And, the idea that Brown’s win showed the power of lesser-known candidates with limited fund raising potential and a conservative message is very wrong.
The G.O.P.s chances of winning statewide offices other than governor remain virtually unchanged and the editors of the state’s most influential newspaper should know that. There is only one very narrow way to credibly claim something in this regard has changed, in the short run at least. If Scott Brown chooses to run for state Attorney-General, or one of the other “statewide constitutional offices other than governor” in 2014, then I would agree that his 2010 win created an opportunity for a Republican (namely him) to win a statewide office other than governor in Massachusetts.
To be clear, there will be special elections for statewide, non-gubernatorial office and Republican prospects in special elections are (relatively) better than they are in regularly scheduled elections, as long as such elections can reasonably be expected to draw less turnout, but other than that there is no good evidence for the editors perspective here.
Interestingly, Scott Brown’s choice to pass on another shot at the Senate probably indicates that he understands what the Globe editors do not (assuming their analysis isn’t part of a cynical effort to justify “horse race” coverage of elections). The necessary conditions for a Republican to win a US Senate election in massachusetts are not present this year, and are almost certainly not going to be present in 2014. While turnout in the 2013 special election may be lower than a regular election, it’s composition will not be skewed to the benefit of a Republican candidate as it was in 2010 when measurable factors produced increased conservative voter turnout AND decreased liberal voter turnout. The State Democratic Party’s present slogan, “2013: We are Ready,” tells the tale in this regard. They will not be caught napping again. Also, the progressive voters who stayed home in 2010 because they were disappointed in President Obama and/or were happy for the opportunity to register their perennial displeasure with the state’s Democratic Party establishment will not make that mistake again anytime soon.
The Globe editors claim that Brown proved a lesser-known candidate could raise enough money to compete against heavy weights in the state is particularly wrong headed. It ignores the fact that Brown was actually a national Republican candidate in 2010 whose election had clear national partisan implications that afforded him the energy and resources of the national party (not to mention that of the then ascendant Tea Party movement across the nation). Not only did the 2010 special election occur all alone on the national stage, it was explicitly framed by Republicans as a chance to stop a Democratic president in his tracks. In other words, it was National partisan politics (of the highly polarized variety) that allowed a lesser-known candidate in the Bay State to be competitive with the big boys in fund raising, not Scott Brown’s campaign or message.
The Globe editors belief that Brown’s campaign and message “got traction” with the state’s “liberal electorate” is problematic in two ways. First, the electorate in the 2010 special election was neither liberal nor representative of the state’s real electorate (i.e. the voters in regularly scheduled elections). Brown’s message “got traction” because it was consistent with the national political mood at the time, a mood that energized conservatives and did nothing to mobilize alienated progressives. The national political mood (partly a creature of timing to be sure), not Brown’s efforts, created the conditions that produced a different Massachusetts electorate, one not seen before or since.
Ironically, if Scott Brown had run and lost the upcoming senate special election, it is conceivable that the Globe editors, and others who share their misunderstanding here, might have begun to see the errors of their assumptions. Unfortunately, unless the Republicans find a very attractive candidate who runs a near flawless campaign only to lose on Election Day, the misunderstanding of what wins these types of elections in Massachusetts reflected by the Globe editors is likely to persist.