The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the GOP blowing it in Massachusetts?

For months now Republicans have harangued their party for failing to broaden the party’s appeal and for refusing to run candidates inappropriate to locales other than deep-red states. So when a charismatic Hispanic in a deep-blue state has a shot to pick up a Senate seat what do fundraisers, Republican establishment figures and third-party groups do? Absolutely nothing.

That, unfortunately for Gabriel Gomez, is the current state of affairs in his special election race against Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is proving to be as awful a candidate as Martha Coakley, who lost to Scott Brown. GOP insiders view Markey as awkward around people and out of touch after more than 35 years in Washington since 1976. One operative cracks, “I bet he couldn’t tell you who bats first for the Red Sox.”

Gomez, by contrast, is a liberal Republican with an impressive resume. He is the son of immigrants, worked his way to the U.S. Naval Academy, then gave up his pilot’s wings to become a Navy Seal and eventually a successful businessman. Markey, by contrast, has spent nearly his whole life in government and seems more concerned about global warming than bread-and-butter issues.

Most observers consider Markey to be in the lead but only by single digits. Via e-mail, National Republican Senate Committee communications director Brad Dayspring observed:

Caught off guard by multiple polls showing the race remaining extremely close (between 4-8 points), Democrats had no choice but to roll out their big guns early. On Friday, Democrats made a big deal over Democrat Boston Mayor Thomas Menino endorsing Markey. They made an even bigger deal over President Obama’s endorsement on Tuesday, and even felt the race was close enough that they had to really put all their cards on the table and bring in First Lady Michelle on Wednesday.

The problem, however, is that Gomez doesn’t have the funds to go on the air in the ultra-expensive Boston TV market to give voters a sense of who he really is.

Why doesn’t he have the resources? Well, so far third-party donors are AWOL, failing to even attack Markey (so as to free Gomez up to share his impressive bio with voters). These groups and individuals seem blind to the fact that Gomez has a real shot, which could narrow the Democrats’ edge and set up the 2014 election for a GOP surge to capture the Senate. Coupled with today’s passing of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who will be replaced by Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee, a Gomez win would make a GOP takeover very doable.

Third-party types have more excuses than real explanations for their inertness. It will cost a lot. Liberal donors will come in if conservatives plunge in. It’s Massachusetts. Gomez is a novice. Frankly, after pleading for more diverse candidates, their failure to back Gomez makes them look cowardly or hypocritical, or both.

In reality, it’s very possible Gomez could pull this out, but he’ll need several pieces to fall into place in addition to funding.

To begin with, he needs to define a single rationale for his election: why it is important to have a Republican in that seat now. Maybe he’ll be the integrity candidate who won’t ignore the Obama administration’s ballooning scandals. Maybe he’ll be the guy to get rid of the medical-device tax, which even Massachusetts Democrats find to be anti-growth and anti-innovation. Or perhaps he’ll be the anti-terrorism candidate who will make sure there are no more Boston bombings.

Second, some big-name Republicans could give him a big lift. Campaigning with Gov. Chris Christie or crowd pleasers such as Rudy Giuliani would get some earned media and may also boost his fundraising.

And finally, the first debate scheduled for Wednesday, followed by debates on June 11 and 18, will be critical for Gomez. Can he charm the audience while landing some real blows against Markey? Can he make enough of an impression to generate donor interest?

For a party promising to reform and broaden its image, the Gomez race looms large. If they fumble a real opportunity to pick up a seat, Republican reformers’ credibility will take a hit and the media will certainly cast the post-2012 GOP as every bit as ineffective and unappealing as the pre-2012 GOP. It really is time to put up or shut up for those advocating a bigger tent for the GOP.