Massachusetts Senate special election: A lost cause for the GOP?

February 5, 2013

It wasn’t too long ago that the race for Secretary of State John Kerry’s old Senate seat looked promising for Republicans. But in the last five days, one well-known Republican after another has publicly declined to run, putting the GOP in an unenviable spot as it faces a fast approaching deadline to field a candidate for a contest that looks to be very difficult for the party.

Sen. Scott Brown's decision not to run was a big blow to GOP hopes. (Gretchen Ertl/AP)
Sen. Scott Brown's decision not to run was a big blow to GOP hopes. (Gretchen Ertl -- AP)

“I think it’s close to a lost cause,” said Massachusetts Republican strategist Rob Gray. “Most people, including the ‘B’ tier of candidates, felt that [former senator Scott] Brown had a chance to win the special, but no other Republican probably did.”

Brown announced last Friday that he would not make a comeback bid, dealing a big blow to the GOP’s chances of winning the seat. He is easily the state’s best-known, most popular Republican, and he has proven that he can raise a lot of money.

After Brown took himself out of the mix, a handful of other prominent Republicans also declined to run. Former governor Bill Weld, former state senator Richard Tisei, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, and Mitt Romney’s eldest son Tagg Romney have each said no.

Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow is forming an exploratory committee, he announced on Tuesday. He’s a considerably lower-profile Republican than Brown and the other Republicans who declined to run. Psychiatrist and Fox News personality Keith Ablow -- who would be a very long shot if he runs -- is willing to give it a go, he said, just as long as he has no primary challenger.

Another name to keep an eye on is Gabriel Gomez, a businessman and former Navy Seal who is discussing a bid with the state Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"I think the best opportunity is for a fresh face," said former state GOP chair Jennifer Nassour.

There isn’t much time left for the field to take shape, with a Feb. 27 deadline for filing paperwork with the state. The primary election will be held on April 30, and the general election is slated for June 25.

This much seems clear: Barring the surprise entry of a top recruit, the eventual GOP nominee will begin the general election as a sizable underdog. The state’s strong Democratic lean is a tall hurdle. And building name ID and a real fundraising apparatus are no small tasks, either.

Democrats are determined not to repeat their 2010 failure, when Brown came from nowhere to pick up the seat once held by Democrat Ted Kennedy. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, Kerry, and other big names coalesced early this time around Rep. Ed Markey, the liberal dean of the state’s congressional delegation. Their hope was to clear the field and spare the party a crowded primary. But Rep. Stephen Lynch, a conservative Democrat, threw a wrench into their plans when he announced last week that he would also run.

Republicans are hopeful that a bruising Democratic primary between the two congressman – neither of whom are well-known outside their districts -- will boost GOP chances in the general election, and they’re already casting the eventual nominee as a creature of Washington.

"The fact is the Democratic Party will field a mediocre congressman with a highly partisan record who has been part of the Washington gridlock,” said newly elected state Republican Party Chair Kirsten Hughes, a former Brown aide. “A Republican senator from Massachusetts will offer the bipartisan leadership to solve our nation's problems."

Special elections are unpredictable, and Bay State Democrats don’t have a presidential race at the top of the ticket helping them, as they did last November.

"I would never say it's an advantage to be a Republican in Massachusetts," said former GOP congressman Peter Torkildsen. But, he added, in a special election, a "solid Republican running a solid race can be competitive."

To be clear, even if the Democratic primary is rough, Republicans stand to face a steep uphill climb in the general election. In 2010, just about everything went right for Brown, and just about everything went wrong for Democratic nominee Martha Coakley. That may be what will it take for another upset to occur.

So far, not a lot has gone right for the GOP. The number of top Republicans who have passed on the race is a reflection of the party’s long odds of victory. And the timing of Brown’s decision left little time for his party to field a replacement.

If Republicans don't pick up the Massachusetts seat this summer, they will get another bite at the apple in 2014, when the eventual 2013 winner will face reelection. Brown might opt for a Senate run (or a run for governor) at that time; but whomever the GOP nominee ends up being would face the tough task of unseating an incumbent.

It’s not over until it’s over. But even before it all officially starts, things are looking awfully tough for Republicans in Massachusetts.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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