Is it all just a little bit of history repeating?

Gabriel Gomez is not the second coming of Scott Brown, he who seems to be spending a good deal of time lately in New Hampshire.  And June 2013 will not be a replay of January 2010.  With respect to Dame Shirley Bassey, it’s not all just a little bit of history repeating.

Context and history matter, as do candidates and their campaigns.  But the latter two have a difficult time fundamentally changing the former two.

Jeff Jacoby’s column in yesterday’s Globe, he asked “Can Gomez find the electoral key that has eluded the Massachusetts GOP for so long? “  History shows relatively few GOP wins in statewide races over the past few decades.

Mass GOP in Senate races

In Senate races, the record is poor to the point of laughable.  Since 1964, the GOP has only cracked more than 50% of the vote in 3 out of 18 races.  Can Gomez be the fourth?

That’s where context matters and there are two ways in which the political context of the state favors Gomez.

First, Massachusetts voters are not as thoroughly liberal as they are popularly imagined.  There is a moderate strain of political thinking that runs through the electorate here that helped sustain Scott Brown’s approval ratings and allowed him to keep Warren to an 8 point margin of victory while the top of the Republican ticket was losing Massachusetts by 23 points.  Gomez’ interesting biography will result in voters giving him a look and the recent PPP Poll shows them doing just that.

Second, special elections are low turnout affairs.  The recent primary election would qualify as a snooze if that were a technical term.   Turnout in the 2010 special election was 54% with a drop off from the 2008 presidential election was most significant in areas that supported the Democrats by more than 60%.  Turnout in June is not going to be high.

Can a low turnout affair and a coalition of Republicans, unenrolled voters and disaffected Democrats carry Gomez to victory?  Of course, but that’s where the context shifts to Markey, or more accurately, the Democratic party.

Since Brown stunned the political class in 2010, the Massachusetts Democratic party has worked overtime on voter outreach.  I noted last June that party Chair John Walsh took the loss of the Senate seat personally and then went into overtime in response:

One of the main lessons Walsh took away from that defeat was that a media strategy doesn’t knock on a voter’s door, provide a human contact, and motivate them to vote. So he sent his party members into the streets to meet voters. It’s quaint, old-fashioned, not at all hip and modern. It’s not a media strategy. But it is highly effective. Recognizing the challenges of direct mail, the clutter of television ads, and the fact that those who still have landlines don’t answer them, he turned to precincts and breathed life into a coordinated campaign strategy.

After that chilly day in January more than three years ago, the GOP has failed to produce a win in any of the statewide or congressional races it has contested.  It has made no gains in the state Senate and while it did double its numbers in the state House in 2010, it was unable to capitalize on those gains in 2012.

Walsh’s strategy is only as effective as it is because voters largely agree with Democrats on some important galvanizing issues.  They are willing to part ways with the Democratic party from time to time.   Issues that may move voters away from them in upcoming state races—political corruption or taxes or both—won’t likely impact the Senate race.

Some Lynch voters may qualify as disaffected and the PPP Polls has Gomez doing well among unenrolled voters.  He’ll need to sustain both to carry him to victory. But he cannot rely on anger at the President, widespread anxiety that keeps Democrats home, and opponents who are content to coast.  His biography helps–candidates do matter–but by itself that won’t make him the fourth Republican to win a Senate seat from Massachusetts since the 1960s.

One final contextual factor that makes this race different from January 2010 and also favors Markey is the Boston mayoral election.  There are two dozen candidates running to succeed Tom Menino.   The field has some very strong names in the mix and the June Senate election is going to an important test for their field organizations.  It’s a gift to them all.  They will get to deploy their troops in advance of the preliminary election in September, test their strengths and note their weaknesses.  Smart municipal candidates in other cities will follow suit.  The impact of this may be to keep turnout in some cities at relatively healthy levels.  When Brown beat Coakley, turnout in Boston fell by 35% from its 2008 level.

Without having to sign them up, Markey now has precinct captains named Walsh, Arroyo, Conley, Richie, Consalvo, Connelly, etc.  It’s not in their own interests for voters to stay home in June.

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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