No Elephant in the Room at Republican Debate

In their first debate, the Republican candidates for John Kerry’s vacated US Senate seat talked about themselves, which is perfectly reasonable and appropriate for a primary election campaign debate. However, they also tried to speak to the general electorate that will choose between one of them and either Congressman Markey or Lynch this Summer.

Unlike like the last successful Republican US Senate candidate, none of these fellows was sounding too upset with the Obama Administration. Even Senator Warren, no conservative she, was given considerable deference. In other words, these guys are not emulating the winning 2010 Republican US Senate campaign, they are emulating the losing 2012 US Senate campaign. Why?

Because despite all their candidate-centered rhetoric, these candidates understand that the larger political/institutional context is important in Massachusetts US Senate elections. They realize that Scott Brown’s “special” election in 2010 reflected the national political environment, which at the time heavily favored Republicans. They also realize that Brown lost in 2012 during a time when the national political climate heavily favored Democrats, and that their own Republican campaigns must be conducted in an equally unfriendly national political climate.

At the debate, they were asked about Brown’s defeat to Elizabeth Warren and one of the themes of their responses seems to have been the notion that but for President Obama’s coattails, the very popular Senator Brown would have been re-elected. Maybe each of them believes that he is attractive enough as a candidate and can position himself in much the same way as Senator Brown with regard to the national political climate, gridlock in DC, and extremism and obstructionism in their Republican Party. Apparently, they hope that absent a popular president on the top of the ticket, all they have to do is perform as well as they assume Brown did with independent and moderate voters in order to win this year.

Unfortunately for them, they are wrong. They are assuming that the lower voter turnout of a non-presidential election (and possibly the even lower expected turnout for a special election) will benefit them and hurt the Democratic nominee. In fact, the turnout advantage that they need to win would require a dynamic that is decidedly absent in 2013; an energized Republican/conservative base AND an alienated and dispirited Democratic/liberal base. It seems clear that none of these candidates understand this dynamic since nothing they are doing to win their party’s nomination appears geared toward their half of this equation (i.e. helping energize their party’s base).

Special elections are won by energizing the base, not by attracting the mythical “swing” voters. Unless the Obama Administration manages to really piss off progressives in an unprecedented way in the next couple months and the Democratic nominee says something that makes Todd Akin look credible by comparison, hopes of a demoralized left on special Election Day in June are a virtual pipe dream.

It appears that these Republican contenders have staked their electoral fates on a mistake and a prayer. The mistake is their theory that the Democratic nominee will be beatable because he will not have the coattails advantage that Warren did, and the prayer is that there will be some kind of “game changer” before Election Day that will allow them to essentially steal the race, provided they don’t alienate moderate voters by appearing too politically partisan and too conservative on policy.

If, on the other hand, they really think the voters on June 25th will be inclined to discount or ignore the importance of party labels and partisanship in the US Senate, and that they therefore can win by out campaigning their Democratic opponent, they are delusional. A Massachusetts US Senate race in the present highly partisan and highly polarized political environment of Washington, DC cannot be sold to voters as either a local affair, or as a chance to strike a blow against “politics as usual.”

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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