Why We Never Moved the Massachusetts Senate Race to Toss-Up

by Stuart Rothenberg June 19, 2013 · 9:36 AM EDT

Minutes after Gabriel Gomez was declared the winner of his party’s special primary on the evening of April 30, I tweeted that Gomez’s victory assured that the Massachusetts Senate special election would be “interesting.” And it has been.

But as the June 25 balloting approaches, it is clear the GOP nominee remains an underdog, as he has been since he was nominated. And that’s why the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call has maintained its “Democrat Favored” rating throughout the race, even as we noted that the contest had tightened and Gomez had some chance of pulling off an upset.

Everyone does ratings differently, because there is no single “right” way of doing them. Some emphasize short-term considerations, including the latest poll numbers. Others downplay the importance of where a race stands today and place greater weight on where a race will be on Election Day. The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call ratings clearly lean toward the second approach, though current polling certainly isn’t ignored and can inform our judgment about the race’s eventual outcome.

One thing we try to avoid is moving races frequently back and forth between categories. We’ve done it, of course, either because we think we have made a mistake somewhere along the line and need to correct the rating or because we mistook short-term changes for a fundamental one. But state and district fundamentals are so important in election outcomes that we try not to jump at the latest poll numbers.

Until recently, most polls showed the special election in Massachusetts to be competitive. Some, such as a survey by GOP pollster McLaughlin & Associates and another by Gomez pollster OnMessage Inc., showed the race within the margin of error. Others, including those conducted by media and educational institutions, as well as some unreleased surveys conducted by Democratic and Republican groups, showed a modest (in the single digits) lead for Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey.

But recently, surveys have shown the race opening up a bit for the Democratic nominee. A June 11-14 University of New Hampshire poll for the Boston Globe, for example, found the Democrat ahead, 54 percent to 43 percent.

Whether the move in the race resulted from Democratic TV spots attacking Gomez, Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama appearing in the state for Markey, or voters simply making up their minds as Election Day approaches, Markey seems to have solidified his advantage in the contest.

While we believed after the primary that Gomez had a chance to win, we remained skeptical that he could replicate what Republican Scott P. Brown accomplished in 2010.

Gomez’s positioning in the race — a former Navy SEAL and political newcomer, a Hispanic and a political moderate — made him an appealing alternative to longtime politician Markey for Bay State voters, and early polling showed the race close and the Democrat under the 50 percent mark. Because of that, we moved the race out of our “Safe” category and into the slightly more competitive “Democrat Favored” category.

But we never moved the race to a more competitive category (“Lean Democrat” or “Tossup”) because we have had a number of reasons for remaining skeptical about Gomez’s — indeed, any Republican’s — prospects in this year’s special election.

Brown beat Martha Coakley in 2010 by 107,317 votes (51.8 percent to 47.1 percent), setting what we regard as the “best case” outcome for a Republican in a Massachusetts Senate race.

The current political environment in the Bay State doesn’t seem as bad for Democrats (or Obama) as it did in 2010, and Gomez lacks Brown’s political experience and proven campaign skills. For those reasons, he started with a harder road to travel than did Brown.

This year, national Democrats decided they could not afford to lose the special election, while national GOP groups seemed to be looking for reasons not to spend heavily on the race. In fact, Republican groups appeared to be more afraid of losing a fight than of losing the seat, so they sat on their hands. We doubted Gomez could withstand a concerted attack if national Democratic groups got engaged, especially without the support of outside GOP groups. And that is exactly what happened.

In a strange way, Brown’s surprising victory in his special election and his loss in last year’s general election made Gomez’s task more difficult by convincing many Republicans that Gomez couldn’t hold the seat in 2014 even if he won the June special election. And the GOP’s poor showing in 2012 seems to have made Republican groups gun-shy about fully engaging against Markey.

In addition, we have always believed that Gomez’s pro-life position on abortion gives Markey and his allies an obvious late line of attack that limits the Republican’s late appeal to undecided voters and caps his strength among self-identified Democrats. Because Brown was pro-choice, he didn’t have that problem.

The last pro-life Republican to carry Massachusetts in a federal race was Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the Bay State was Democrat Walter Mondale’s third-best showing, behind only Minnesota and the District of Columbia, both of which he carried.

Finally, we remained skeptical about Gomez’s winning coalition.

While Brown won the 2010 special election by drawing about one-fifth of Democrats, Gomez has never come close to that percentage; the Globe survey showed him winning only 12 percent. Given that, Gomez needs to win more than 60 percent of independents to have a chance to win, a very tall order. He has been winning among independents but drew only 51 percent in the Globe survey and as much as 55 percent in other polls.

All of these factors contributed to our skepticism about Gomez’s chances.

Of the GOP hopefuls in the primary, only Gomez had any chance of making this special election into a real contest. He showed promise, but he always faced long odds. When it comes to a federal race, the Massachusetts mountain is simply too hard for any Republican to climb in all but the most unusual of circumstances.