Republicans feel they can’t catch a break with U.S. Senate races. First, they lost every close contest but one in 2012, bringing their total seats from 47 to 45. A seat in New Jersey opened up with the death of Democrat Frank Lautenberg this week, but GOP governor Chris Christie strangely left his party adrift by calling a snap special election in October that leaves underdog GOP candidates little time to organize and raise money. New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican senator in over 40 years, but there was hope that if Christie had delayed the election till November 2014 an appointed incumbent could have built a credible record and held the seat.
Then there is Massachusetts, where on June 25 a special election will be held to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. Internal polls show Democratic congressman Ed Markey, a 37-year veteran of the House, holding only a single-digit lead over Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez. Nonetheless, Republicans are privately resigned to disappointment — just two years after Scott Brown shocked the nation by winning a special election for a vacant Massachusetts Senate seat.
“Markey has oodles more money than Gomez, there is no fierce urgency among conservatives about winning, unlike with Scott Brown’s 2010 race, and Gomez doesn’t have Brown’s ability to soothe the ruffled feathers of conservatives,” one prominent GOP consultant told me.
Indeed, Gomez is a challenging figure for conservatives to unify behind — even in blue Massachusetts. He has said his party “is stuck in the past” and has refused to sign pledges against raising taxes and to repeal Obamacare. Indeed, during the campaign’s first debate on Wednesday, Gomez went out of his way to praise Romneycare, the intellectual inspiration for much of Obamacare. He simply doesn’t favor a federal solution using many of the same policy tools, he explained. That approach did wonders to confuse voters when Mitt Romney tried it less than a year ago.
For all of the distance Gomez created between himself and his party, it didn’t stop Markey from castigating him as an extremist. “I’ve had a job down in Washington: It’s been to battle tea-party Republicans,” said Markey. “They want Mr. Gomez down there to help them get the majority that will ultimately further this gridlock that they have fostered over this last generation.”
Gomez did strike some effective blows, welcoming the 66-year-old Markey back to Massachusetts after 37 years inside the Beltway and calling him “the poster child for term limits.” A former Navy SEAL, Gomez stayed composed during the debate and effectively hammered Markey for not doing enough to repeal the Obamacare tax on the medical-device industry, a major employer in Massachusetts. While Gomez gave ground on gun rights and abortion, he said he was against a ban on assault weapons and that he was someone who — unlike Markey — would confirm a pro-life judicial nominee.
But Gomez is running out of time. There are only two more debates between now and the election, and most of the state still hasn’t formed an opinion of him. Political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says he finds it strange that Republicans aren’t rallying to Gomez. “While 2013 certainly isn’t 2010 and Gomez isn’t Brown, you’d think Republicans — contributors and activists from both wings of the party — would see the Massachusetts special election as an opportunity to build momentum and deliver another blow to a White House staggering from criticism from both sides of the aisle on the IRS and Associated Press controversies,” he wrote in Roll Call last week.
Michael Graham, a leading conservative Boston talk-show host, told me there is a reason Gomez isn’t catching fire. “There is a word for the kind of rhetoric he is using, and it’s ‘Democratic,’” he says. “He doesn’t come across as saying enough that would excite voters to come out in the middle of summer.”
That may be true, but many Democrats are also not excited about voting for an old, predictable liberal warhorse like Ed Markey. College students, a huge liberal voting bloc, will not be voting in great numbers with school out, and enthusiasm for the Obama administration has cooled in Massachusetts. The president is coming there on June 12 for a fundraiser for Markey, and some political observers say his presence might inflame conservatives and right-leaning independents enough to get excited about Gomez. Certainly Obama’s last-minute trip into the Bay State in an attempt to defeat Scott Brown in 2010 flopped.
It’s time for conservatives to move past their funk over the 2012 elections and their lingering sense that they can’t win an upset in a tough state. Gabriel Gomez isn’t a conservative, but he’s running in Massachusetts, where, with the exception of Scott Brown, no Republican has won major office in over a decade. If Ed Markey wins on June 25, a golden opportunity to show that President Obama’s aggressive post-election agenda has little traction anywhere will be lost. If Gabriel Gomez wins, Republicans will gain an exciting new voice in a state where they currently have none. Gomez is a mixed bag for conservatives. But, as Scott Brown did, he would likely stick with his party in any serious debate where his vote would make the difference. Given Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hyperpartisanship, there are likely to be a fair number of those close votes — on everything from budget issues to military readiness to judges — over the next two years.
— John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.