Gabriel Gomez is an impressive candidate. The son of Colombian immigrants served his country as a Navy SEAL and holds a master’s degree from Harvard Business School. But his strong résumé, charisma, and well-executed campaign may not be enough for him to win on Tuesday, when Massachusetts holds a special election for U.S. Senate.
“Winning was always going to be difficult,” says Ryan Williams, a Massachusetts-based Republican consultant. “Gomez has a lot of appeal, and he has been effective in framing this race as the outsider versus the liberal insider. But he’s still a Republican, and Democrats have been relentless in connecting him with the national party.”
The seat was vacated earlier this year when John Kerry, the state’s longtime Democratic senator, was nominated as secretary of state. Gomez, a 47-year-old political novice, won a crowded Republican primary in April.
Since then, Bay State Republicans have hoped that Gomez could repeat the success of Scott Brown, who won a special Senate election in 2010 following the death of Ted Kennedy. Brown’s victory, however, now appears to be more of an anomaly than the start of a rightward trend. Massachusetts remains a deep-blue state, and the winds that lifted Brown have lulled.
“Back in 2010, it felt like Republicans were on the march,” recalls Eric Fehrnstrom, Brown’s former strategist. “Republicans had just won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the president was bogged down with his health-care agenda. This time, Republicans don’t seem to be as ascendant, and the atmospherics are different.”
The latest polls show Gomez trailing Democrat Ed Markey, a veteran congressman. A Boston Herald poll released on Friday has Markey up by 20 percentage points, 56 percent to 36 percent. Gomez allies say the race is closer, though even in polls where Markey’s margin is smaller, Gomez struggles to get well above 40 percent among likely voters.
John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, is more optimistic, and his polls on the race have shown a tighter contest. In a memo last week, he argued that Markey’s favorable rating has become “frozen” and that Gomez has a shot, should undecided voters be willing at the eleventh hour to get behind an “electable moderate Republican.”
Gomez isn’t giving up. In an interview over the weekend, he told me he’s working hard to get out the vote, and he’s planning to campaign with Brown on Monday night. He’s eager to remind voters that he shares Brown’s centrist politics. He’s also highlighting his military service to contrast with Markey, who has been in the House since 1976.
“I think this race is going to turn, due to low turnout,” Gomez says. “There’s more enthusiasm on our side. Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats don’t buy these ads that try to make me seem scary. In fact, they think he’s scared, since he’s bringing in all of these big-name Democrats from Washington.”
Vice President Joe Biden was in South Boston last week, where he appeared with Markey at a union hall. In a fiery speech, Biden cast Gomez as a tool of the Republican leadership, even though Gomez is a first-time candidate and once donated to the Obama-Biden campaign. “Why does Newt Gingrich talk about him like he’s the second coming?” Biden asked the crowd.
That visit came a couple weeks after President Obama campaigned for Markey. Former president Bill Clinton has stumped for him, too.
Gomez sighs when I mention the caricature. He has campaigned with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona, but those associations have been used chiefly to raise money and draw attention to his pragmatism rather than bolster his conservative profile. On the trail, he often goes out of his way to wag his finger at bumbling Republicans.
Gomez’s positions are far to the left of leading conservative senators such as Texas freshman Ted Cruz. Gomez supports immigration reform, including the Gang of Eight’s legislation, and he supports gay marriage. On abortion, he says he’s personally pro-life but won’t fight to end Roe v. Wade.
Democrats have paid attention. Markey may have years of experience, and he has avoided making the kind of gaffes that doomed Martha Coakley, Brown’s Democratic opponent three years ago. But his campaign has mostly been a lackluster affair. Behind the scenes, national Democrats have been nervous from the start that he could let the seat slip away.
Those nerves have led Democratic donors to ladle significant cash into Markey’s coffers, and Gomez, even with his sterling biography, has struggled to stay competitive. Outside Democratic groups have also played heavily. More than $5 million has been spent on Markey-related television ads, while only $3 million has been put behind Gomez, according to the Associated Press.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, for its part, has devoted time and resources to Gomez, but conservative groups have been relatively quiet, even though the campaign is on the national radar. American Crossroads, a group associated with Karl Rove, told its supporters in an e-mail that it wouldn’t “go all-in.”
Several sources close to Republican donors say the resistance to fund super PACs for Gomez is a reflection not on the candidate but of Republican weariness.
“Scott Brown won in 2010, but he lost his reelection bid in 2012, and we’re all still getting over the presidential election,” says a Republican operative who’s familiar with the thinking of conservative donors. “Is Gabe Gomez going to be the start of the Republican revival? Maybe, I hope so, but I have not been able to convince everybody that this race is a good investment.”
“I’m surprised it didn’t become a hot race,” adds a Republican donor who’s been involved with Massachusetts politics for decades. “Here we have a moderate Latino superstar in the making, and people shrug. I understand that people are tired and frustrated, but Markey is very beatable.”
As some Republicans have passed, a cadre of former aides to the Romney campaign has jumped in. Will Ritter, who traveled with Romney throughout the 2012 campaign, is Gomez’s senior adviser. Other Romney veterans on board include former communications director Gail Gitcho.
In the final stretch, Team Gomez is focusing on turnout, especially in the suburbs and small towns south of Boston. Whereas Brown used tea-party fervor and his stature from the state legislature to gain notice, Gomez is betting that his moderate streak and credentials will attract Democrats who are uneasy about Markey.
Latino voters are also being targeted. “We’re zigzagging across the state,” Gomez tells me. “We’re going into the areas with Latino populations, and I go in there and speak Spanish to them. They’ve got a chance to vote for one of their own in a statewide election. I think we’re actually going to do quite well in the urban areas.”
“He’s out there, and voters like him,” Williams says. “The problem is that there really isn’t a bastion of conservatism anywhere in the state. The strongest area is near Cape Cod and the blue-collar Republican towns south of Boston and in Plymouth County. Those areas can go for a Republican, but I’m not sure if there’s an intensity there, which you need to win.”
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, you can count on Gomez to remain a rising force in state politics. Whoever wins will serve only 17 months, the remainder of Kerry’s term. Next year, the seat will be up for a full term, and Gomez has already hinted that he’s interested in running again if he falls short.
In the meantime, look for him on Tuesday morning at the polling booth, wearing the same green flight jacket that he has worn throughout the campaign. Back in 2010, Brown wore a similar style of jacket — a rugged brown barn coat — to convey his working-class spirit.
“I’ve had it for 24 years and I’ve never washed it,” Gomez says. “It’s who I am. They say it’s bad luck to wash it — and I like to be lucky.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.