A Brown legacy?

Has Scott Brown left an electoral legacy?  A few weeks ago, when the dismal state of the Republican Party here was again on full display (again, as in over and over again since the 1970s), it’d be easy to suggest Brown did not leave the GOP stronger than when he first ran for Senate.

But the spirited GOP nomination race for this year’s special Senate election has me rethinking.

The context here remains Democratic, and overwhelmingly so.  In his short time in high office, Brown did little to change that.  No one really could.  Indeed, if  you omit the special election of January 2010, the contours of which, as Professor Duquette has explained, were quite unique, then the last two GOP Senate races that were truly competitive, 2012 and 1996, saw the GOP candidate lose by 7.5%.  The two most competitive races beyond those (1994 and 1984) had the GOP nominee lose by 17% and 10% respectively.

Two cycles 16 years apart and the GOP loses by 7.5% It’s a stubborn figure for the Republicans here to accept.  Neither the popular Bill Weld or the popular, and incumbent, Scott Brown could change it.

But it is all for the good if one of Scott Brown’s legacies is to reinvigorate Senate elections here and perhaps, by extension, other statewide contests.  He brought a healthy degree of competition to two cycles —the special and the 2012 general- and he campaigned vigorously for GOP candidates in the 2010 general election.  And there are multiple ways to categorize competitive without suggesting that elections here offer a false narrative.

For example, the context of races in Massachusetts will almost always favor the Democratic nominee.  The manifestation of that is seen when the GOP fails to nominate candidates for many offices, fails to compete financially with the Democrats, fails to open and staff field offices, and when the candidate has low name recognition.

Think Ed Chase or Jeff Beatty taking on Kerry and Kennedy. Or the circus that was the GOP nomination in the 1986 Governor’s race.  Or the fact that few can remember the last time the GOP offered a serious nominee for the office of Attorney General.

Those races were not classified as competitive by the media, pundits, or political professionals.  Because they were not competitive on any measure.

In 2012, Brown was, in fact, highly competitive with Warren in a number of key ways:

  • he was the incumbent
  • he had high name recognition
  • he was held in esteem by the public and this was reflected in close polling during the summer, even as Warren pulled ahead
  • he was able to complete with the Democratic nominee in terms of fundraising.
  • he, like Weld showed  cross over appeal.  Bob Dole and Mitt Romney were crushed in Massachusetts yet a number of Clinton and Obama voters cast a ballot for the Republican Senate nominee.

When someone has all of this going for them, I classify that as a competitive candidate.  It does not change the larger context–we are not now and never going to be a Red state–but it does force us to treat the election as competitive within the contours of the larger context.

That the 7.5% changed not at all between 1996 and 2012 indicates the ongoing challenge the GOP faces here.  But you cannot peck away at it by running non entities. In this year’s special, the GOP has a three-way choice among potentially strong candidates (I’m assuming Sullivan gets on the ballot), something they have not had in a very long time.  That’s a sign of health.

It can all come crashing down.  For starters, this is a special election that will feature relatively low turnout.  Second, if Brown challenges Baker in a GOP primary contest in 2014, the party could implode even further.  Third, if Winslow, Sullivan, and Gomez put together an organization in a short time period and then let it atrophy before 2014, a lot of this will be for naught.

But today the GOP might worry a little less about that and be thankful that a charismatic former Senator has convinced his fellow partisans to throw their hats in the ring in a largely hostile environment.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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