Six ways the GOP can make the Massachusetts Senate race competitive

The Republican establishment breathed a sigh of relief when Boston businessman Gabriel Gomez won Tuesday's GOP primary in the Massachusetts special election Senate race, believing he represents the party's best chance at an unlikely pick-up in liberal Massachusetts.

Gomez, a Hispanic former Navy SEAL investment firm executive, has the type of outsider credibility and centrist leanings the GOP hopes will play well against 18-term Rep. Edward Markey, the Democratic nominee. 

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Republicans have begun to privately — if cautiously — float the possibility of another upset like the one Scott Brown pulled off in 2010. 

But if Brown benefitted from a perfect storm — a bad Democratic candidate, a favorable national climate and his own compelling personal story — during his own race, Gomez’s storm will need to be even stronger. 

Markey’s a far superior candidate than failed Democratic nominee Martha Coakley, and Democrats won’t be caught sleeping on this race. President Obama, too, won the state by 23 points in 2012.

Here are six things that Gomez needs to pull off an upset: 

1. The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings puts national security at the forefront.

Though every candidate paused their campaigns following the bombings, the terror attack and national security became central issues in the race’s closing days.

Gomez, who ran the marathon and finished just minutes before the bombs went off, has touted his background as a Navy SEAL as a reason why he’s well suited to handle national security issues.

MassINC pollster Steve Koczela noted a recent poll showed widespread support in Massachusetts for a hawkish response to the bombing — a sentiment that may favor a Republican.  

“In terms of a continuing effort to prevent terrorist attacks, you see an interest in a pretty muscular stance. It’s likely that people who are concerned about that issue and do feel more strongly about national security will look at Gomez favorably," he said. 

2. Outside Republican groups must spend heavily in the race. 

Republicans agree that Gomez won’t have a chance if outside groups don’t invest heavily in the race, but a number of strategists for groups that typically get involved say they’re holding their fire until polling on the race comes in.

While Republicans agree Gomez is a strong candidate, the groups are wary of investing in a lost cause, and are looking for evidence that the climate in Massachusetts could be favorable for a Republican.

“A Republican winning in Massachusetts requires three things: an ideal candidate, a lackluster opponent and the right moment. We definitely have the first two parts — the question is whether the electoral environment is right at this moment,” said one GOP strategist.

But that early money could make all the difference as Gomez seeks to define himself and Markey in the early days of the campaign. Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said an early investment could cause Democrats to spend money on what they consider to be a safe seat.

“Spending now to find out if you can get a boost is better than waiting to see if the boost can come around. Frontloading the money, and forcing Democrats to spend there, might be a little bit smarter,” he said.

One national GOP operative said outside spending — or the lack thereof — could be a “pivotal factor in the race.”

Markey has hammered Gomez for refusing to sign a pledge to keep outside money out of the race. But Gomez’s campaign has hit back by charging Markey, who has accepted millions in contributions from PACs over the course of his career, is hypocritical.

Markey benefitted from nearly $2 million in outside spending during the primary and those groups have indicated a willingness to continue spending.


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3. Republicans must tag Markey as a Washington insider.

Republicans have wasted no time in hammering Markey over his long tenure in Congress, calling him a “creature of Washington” and saying he spends most of his time in Maryland in a strategy memo issued by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Gomez has been framing himself in the same outsider tradition as Brown, expressing support for term limits and calling himself an “independent voice” in his victory speech after Tuesday's primary.

“This election is about the future and not about the past,” he said.

4. Markey must make mistakes.

Every campaign rides on the strength of its candidate, and Republicans are hoping Markey will crack under renewed scrutiny.

Markey has rarely faced a competitive challenger, and there were early concerns among some Democrats that he might make a weak candidate.

Markey largely avoided any of the gaffes that sink campaigns during the Democratic primary. He entangled himself only briefly in controversy when he compared the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed for the creation of super PACs, to the Dred Scott decision that allowed slavery to continue in the 19th century.

Brown won in 2010 in part due to Coakley’s many gaffes and a lackluster effort on her behalf from the Democratic Party as a whole.

“[Markey] hasn't really faced the quick, aggressive campaign that we’ve got here,” said Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for Gomez.

For Democrats in Massachusetts, the pain of Coakley's loss remains fresh, however, and they’re not likely to be caught off guard again. 

They point out that the atmosphere in Massachusetts is favorable for even a weaker Democratic candidate.

"Gomez could run an A campaign and Markey could run a B campaign, and he could still win. Markey could afford to have some of those things happen, and he could still end up winning," said one national Democratic operative.

5. Gomez will have to be like Scott Brown in 2010, not 2012.

Brown won in 2010 by running as a folksy Washington outsider looking to head to the Senate to help fix it. He lost in 2012 because Democrats successfully tied him to the national party and the party’s nominee, Mitt Romney.

Democrats are already trying out that playbook again.

Senate Majority PAC called Gomez “Mitt Romney Jr.” in a memo issued late Tuesday night. 

Markey’s campaign argued that Gomez is “the first domino for the national GOP seeking to take control of the Senate and enact an extreme agenda that's bad for Massachusetts.” 

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cast Gomez as beholden to an uncaring "Republican agenda."

"Ed Markey has a strong record of fighting for middle class families and championing issues that the people of Massachusetts care about while Gabriel Gomez opposes a woman’s right to choose, sides with the big banks over consumers, and would support a Republican agenda that would cut Medicare and Social Security," Barasky said. "Gabriel Gomez ... is wildly out of touch with Massachusetts voters."

But Gomez has worked to highlight his bipartisan bona fides from the start of his primary campaign. He released a letter he sent to Gov. Deval Patrick (D) asking for an appointment to the Senate that pledged to support President Obama’s agenda on guns and immigration.

Gomez also called for “being more inclusive, as opposed to exclusive, and also broadening” the Republican Party during an appearance on MSNBC. 

Like Brown, Gomez has a compelling personal narrative — in addition to being a former SEAL, he is the son of Colombian immigrants — that could boost his popularity among voters in the state. 

“Biography is important. I think that people are moved by attractive personalities who have interesting backgrounds,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. 

“The fact that he's a little bit shy and awkward and is also a Navy SEAL and could break any of us in half — that creates an attractive quality in the minds of voters.”

6. Voters will need to focus on personality, not policy.

For all that Republicans will try to make Markey’s tenure in Congress an issue, it may remain his greatest asset — and Gomez may need to avoid policy if he hopes to gain traction.

Markey can tout his vote in favor of President Obama’s healthcare law and his leadership on environmental issues during his time in Congress, while Gomez has to hope there’s enough of an anti-incumbent sentiment brewing to make his lack of legislative experience appealing.

Markey’s campaign is already trying to frame Gomez as being on the wrong side of policy issues that could come up during the general election campaign.

One such issue is potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare that President Obama included in his budget. Gomez has expressed support for the chained CPI proposal that could lead to cuts in Social Security benefits, but Markey is framing Gomez’s position as in favor of cuts to those popular entitlement programs.

And immigration reform is due to hit the Senate in June, making it likely to garner attention in the race just weeks before the election. 

Gomez, in his letter to Patrick, indicated he’d support President Obama’s agenda on reform, but said on Wednesday he supports Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) reform package. Any rift between the two could work against Gomez.

Gomez didn't have to defend those positions — or his anti-abortion stance, or his opposition to an assault weapons ban — very much during the primary. 

In a general election campaign, however, Markey will seek to make them the centerpiece of his offense.