What the GOP must learn from Tuesday's special election

What the GOP must learn from Tuesday's special election
To win statewide in Massachusetts, Republicans need to learn some tough lessons.  

Low turnout in Tuesday’s special Senate election was supposed to help Republican Gabriel Gomez. But facing unseasonably hot and humid weather in Massachusetts, voters in the moderate suburbs barely outpaced reliably Democratic city voters.

Vote totals were about half that of the Scott Brown special election victory of 2010, and a third of last year’s presidential election. The numbers added up to a win for Rep. Ed Markey (D).

In the days leading up to the election, the race became focused on Markey’s long tenure in Congress. It was a shift in the tenor of the campaign, which had previously been marked by attempts to define Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, as a radical right-wing conservative: anti-gun control, anti-choice, anti-immigrant, anti-Social Security, et cetera. As you can imagine, such labels are a death knell for a Republican in Massachusetts.

Markey’s attacks clearly resonated with voters and Gomez never recovered enough to lay out a vision which excited the masses. Gomez launched a carefully orchestrated final push, starting in the debate seven days prior to the election. He asked Markey repeatedly why he failed for 37 years to do all that he promised to do if elected to the Senate and then Gomez asserted that his military record and success as a businessman would allow him to set aside partisanship and accomplish more than Markey.

Markey brought in Presidents Obama and Clinton as well as Vice President Joe Biden. He asked voters to send him to work with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) to enact a progressive agenda. He was, after all, backed by millions of dollars from left-wing groups and activists.  He paraded “career politicians” in a state that loves their life-long Democrat public servants.

So does this mean Republicans can’t win statewide again in Massachusetts? Not without learning a few things from Gomez’s race:  

Republicans need to do a better job of defining themselves early. This takes money, something that was particularly anemic in the Gomez campaign. Gomez is not the first Republican newcomer to be backed into a corner by attack ads with varying degrees of truth, but in a special election there is virtually no time to recover. No candidate wants to spend their time and money and message diffusing broad inaccuracies and mischaracterizations. Spending early money to define yourself properly helps ensure those attacks graze the candidate – not land body blows. Republicans and Democrats are open to criticism when it comes to longevity of service with spotty results. Failure to perform – and then promising to perform in the future – seems ripe for attack. It’s a real issue for voters, disenfranchised by the lackluster performance of Congress over the last decade (or 37 years), but voters still seem to hold their own elected officials harmless from their perception of Congress as a whole. Many Massachusetts voters believe that the Republican Party has social policies that are often contrary to the values of fiscal conservatives who like our party’s financial policies. In Massachusetts, moderate Republicans are held hostage by a GOP that is socially out of step with independent minded voters. Just ask former Sen. Brown what he thinks of Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock’s comments last year. We embrace right-wing social conservatives and push away moderate, electable and capable candidates by applying a social litmus test. In the case of Gomez, he spent the first month of his campaign defending a letter he wrote saying that he agreed with Obama on several issues. When running against a fixture of Washington, we know there are dozens of groups that have invested decades and money in people like Markey. To beat these guys we need to be prepared to spend a lot of money to counter the funds that come pouring in for these “career politicians.” With 20 days to go, Markey had out-raised Gomez by more than $5.25 million. Polling data draws money. Getting outspent with negative attack ads that define you moves polling data and money drives negative ads. It’s not complicated – waiting until the 11th hour to help a campaign financially hurts our chances to win.

Effective campaigns need four quality components: candidate, message, organization and money. When we can put these things together, we can win. In Massachusetts on Tuesday, we saw how being way behind on money can stymie your message thereby reducing the motivation of your organization and keeping your candidate from his or her true potential.

But after all – this is Massachusetts – among the bluest of the blue states and for Republicans here, like Brown, Mitt Romney and Bill Weld, there is no room for error and we rely on fiscally conservative independents to win elections.

The president of RTC Advisors, Inc., Rob has more than 18 years experience in politics and government.

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