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Can Gabriel Gomez Win Mass. Senate Race?

Can Gabriel Gomez Win Mass. Senate Race?

By Sean Trende - May 7, 2013

On New Year's Eve 2009, before any polling had been conducted, I suggested that Scott Brown might be positioned to make a close race against Martha Coakley in the contest to finish out Ted Kennedy’s Senate term in Massachusetts. Of course Brown did win, and by a larger margin than I would have thought possible.

Now that John Kerry has resigned his Senate seat to become secretary of state, a similar question presents itself: Can Republican Gabriel Gomez upset Democratic Rep. Ed Markey in the Bay State?

The answer is the same: probably not, although it is possible. The RCP Average shows Markey with a five-point lead over Gomez more than a month out from the special election, which is actually smaller than the lead Coakley had a few weeks before her surprising loss.

But the race’s competitiveness early on in many ways makes things more difficult for Gomez. Brown’s Senate victory was the equivalent of Florida Gulf Coast University’s run in the 2013 NCAA tournament (the team had lost to Lipscomb, twice, in regular season play, but knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State in the tournament and pressed Florida hard).

Brown came out of nowhere in the last few weeks of the race. Polling in early November had him down 31 points (the primary was in early December, with the general election about a month later), but Coakley effectively choked under Brown’s pressure. He knocked her so off balance that she kept making cringe-inducing gaffes amid what was probably the worst political environment for Democrats in 30 years. There really wasn’t time to define Brown, and his moderate voting record and likeable persona immunized him somewhat from whatever attacks the Democrats pulled together.

This time, no one will be surprised by Gabriel Gomez, and there is plenty of time between now and the election to define him. It isn’t entirely clear what the national mood is, but it doesn’t seem quite as bad for Democrats as January 2010 (although the president’s job approval is about the same).

But just because the parallels are imperfect doesn’t mean an upset is out of the question. There are three sub-species of Republican wins in Massachusetts; I don’t want to overstate things, as there are substantial overlaps here, but these are the basic paths.

The first is the upscale coalition. This is the pathway that Bill Weld took in the 1990 gubernatorial race against Democrat John Silber. Silber, the president of Boston University, ran to the right of Weld on many social issues, including gay rights.

Weld won a close race by carrying tony addresses like Brookline and Cambridge, while losing blue-collar Fall River by a three-to-one margin. This was the sort of outcome we might have seen if Scott Brown had run against Rep. Stephen Lynch.

The second pathway is the one taken by Mitt Romney in 2002. Romney lost the liberal bastions and the downscale locales but ran well pretty much everywhere else, relying heavily on wins in suburban areas and small towns.

The third pathway is the one taken by Paul Cellucci in his 1998 gubernatorial win. It’s more of a blue-collar version of the Romney coalition. (Cellucci ran well ahead of Weld and ahead of Romney in places like Fall River and Worcester.)

Brown’s victory was something of a crossover of the last two, but if Gomez is going to prevail, I think he will have to push more for a downscale coalition. Specifically, four things would have to happen. First, like Brown, he will have to emphasize his personality and military service (and also his status as a child of Colombian immigrants).

Second, the general electorate would have to perceive Markey as too liberal, even by Massachusetts standards. Markey’s DW-NOMINATE score placed him as the 19th most liberal member of the past Congress. DW-NOMINATE has a useful -- if problematic -- tool for comparing House and Senate members, and it places Markey a fair degree to Ted Kennedy’s left, and well to Kerry’s. (Remember, only a third of state voters self-describe as liberal. That certainly ignores a number of moderates who are moderate only by Massachusetts standards, but the point is, you really can get too far to the left.)

Third, he would have to emphasize his outsider status. Washington is not held in high regard anywhere in the country right now, and Markey has been part of D.C. for over 35 years. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if Brown hadn’t faced another outsider in Elizabeth Warren, he would have made the 2012 Senate race close, if not won it.

Fourth, he needs Markey to have trouble consolidating the Democratic coalition. Markey just emerged from a Democratic primary that split somewhat on the upscale-downscale lines described above. If those faults don’t resolve themselves, Gomez might be well-positioned to pick off just enough Democrats to win. 

But here’s why I don’t think Gomez’s gambit will ultimately work. Only 20 percent of Massachusetts voters self-describe as conservative. While Gomez supports marriage equality, he is against an assault weapons ban, and is pro-life. That said, he supports universal background checks, and donated $500 to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Gomez will have an argument to make, but I suspect he’ll be more readily cast as a national Republican than Brown was, and this might damage him too much in the suburbs and upscale areas to make up for any strength in downscale neighborhoods. At the same time, his extensive background in finance may harm him in the downscale areas (although there might be a countervailing effect in the suburbs). 

As one final bit of analysis, it’s worth taking a look at the crosstabs from the recent poll from the Democratic polling firm PPP, which has had pretty good final results and which showed Gomez trailing Markey by four points shortly after the primary. Looking at the head-to-head numbers, the undecideds split about evenly between Obama and Romney, with a plurality either not voting or voting for some other candidate (these people will probably not show up on Election Day). There are more conservatives than liberals among undecideds, and more Republicans than Democrats, with Independents as the most commonplace group. (See update below.)

Obviously the relatively large error margins for these sub-samples tamps down on our ability to be precise here or confident about our findings. But consider this: If undecided Republicans, Democrats, and Independents were to split in the same fashion as those who have already decided (in other words, Markey gets 75 percent of Democrats, while Gomez gets 60 percent of Independents), that would translate to a Markey win of 51 percent to 49 percent. This is roughly where I concluded Coakley would end up in 2010. 

Will Gomez be able to pull together the pieces for an upset? He’s certainly better positioned than almost any other Republican running for federal office in the past few decades. But the conventional wisdom -- to which I currently subscribe -- is that the national environment just isn’t enough like 2010 for Gomez to pull off this sort of win. If Gomez does win -- or if he keeps it close -- then that conventional wisdom probably needs revisiting. 

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UPDATE, and apology: In the third to last paragraph (an analysis drawn from the bottom-right corner of page 3 here), I misinterpreted the undecided “rows,” which were in fact meant to be read as columns -- something I should know after five years of reading PPP’s crosstabs. What the crosstabs actually show is that 15 percent of Obama’s voters are undecided, 14 percent of Romney’s are undecided, and 48 percent of the someone else/don’t remember voters are undecided. An accurate analysis would then take this and multiply it against the shares of the total sample that voted for Obama/Romney/Other. Since there are many more Obama voters than Romney voters in the sample, the correct conclusion is that there are quite a few more undecided Obama voters than Romney voters. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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