If Ted Kennedy were still alive and serving in Congress—which is to say, if Scott Brown had never stunned the political establishment by winning Kennedy's Senate seat—this month’s special election in Massachusetts between longtime Democratic Congressman Ed Markey and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez might not get much attention. On paper, this Senate race is not a toss-up: Massachusetts is one of the bluest states in the country and Markey is nursing a modest but meaningful lead (probably in the high single digits) with less than three weeks to go. But the Cook Political Report, out of “an abundance of caution,” now rates the contest as a “toss-up.” It’s hard not to wonder whether that caution stems, at least partially, from the memory of Brown’s upset victory in the 2010 special election.
It does feel a bit like déjà vu. This year’s election, like the last one, features a doddering Democratic insider facing off against an upstart Republican outsider who might double as Mr. Massachusetts. But superficial similarities aside, Markey isn’t Martha Coakley, the incompetent Democratic candidate from 2010, and Gomez isn’t Brown. For one, Markey is actually campaigning and running advertisements. While that might seem a low bar, Coakley lowered it there. She sat on the sidelines, and her campaign didn’t even run ads until two weeks before the election, giving Brown uncontested control of the airwaves for weeks. Brown used that time to compare himself to John F. Kennedy—not exactly the message a Democratic candidate should concede on the Kennedy family's home turf. Gomez, on the other hand, didn’t have the resources to run ads until this week—prompting The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin to wonder whether Gomez was blowing it.
The political environment doesn’t feel nearly as bad as 2010, either. That year, the special election was held at the peak of the health care debate, when conservatives were enraged and the public was skeptical of the president’s agenda. Today’s political environment isn’t great for Democrats—Obama’s approval rating is similar and the “scandals” aren’t helping—but there isn’t a palpable sense of outrage. If any issue is likely to dominate the election, it would be gun control, but although Gomez supports background checks, he opposes an assault-weapons ban, putting him out of step with one of the country’s most pro-gun control electorates.
There is just one true constant between 2010 and 2013: Massachusetts itself. Even in the Republican-friendly 2010 election, self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 23-point margin, according to a post-election Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey. Brown’s victory required a staggering 31-point landslide among independent voters, along with 20 points' worth of liberal defectors and 17 percent of Democrats. That huge Democratic advantage meant that 2010’s perfect storm only gave Brown 51.9 percent of the popular vote—the best performance by a Massachusetts Republican running for the presidency, governorship, or Senate in 14 years.
If a perfect storm only yielded a narrow Brown victory, then anything less might be expected to yield a Markey win. And since I don’t see very many analysts arguing that Gomez has Brown’s pickup truck, that Markey is as indolent as Coakley, or that the political climate is as hostile to Democrats as it was during the heart of the health-care debate, I’m surprised to see Democrats worrying so much about Massachusetts. After all, Brown’s victory doesn’t loom large because it presaged a new era of Republican competitiveness in the Bay State, but instead because it was completely surprising. A mere two years later, of course, he coughed up the seat to Elizabeth Warren.
The fear of another surprise—some big, final lurch in Gomez' direction—is what keeps Democrats nervous, but Massachusetts voters probably didn’t just flip a switch and move 20 points in Brown’s direction overnight. Instead, Brown probably made steady, accelerating gains while Coakley twiddled her thumbs. That’s hard to prove, since the polls didn’t show Brown making steady gains—but that’s because there just weren’t any polls. There wasn’t a single one between early November 2009, when a Suffolk poll showed Coakley with a 31-point lead, and January 4, when Rasmussen showed a 9-point race (a PPP poll conducted just days later showed Brown ahead). Brown’s rise probably began after he won the Republican primary in early December, even if there weren’t any polls to prove it. Afterward, Brown drove his pickup truck around the state and aired advertisements while Coakley kept shelter from the New England winter. When the polls reentered the fray after the holidays, the race was competitive. Many of Coakley’s most famous gaffes, like calling former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a “Yankee fan,” wouldn’t come until later.
So far, there isn’t any sign of movement toward Gomez. The most recent PPP survey shows Markey ahead by 8, one point better than Markey’s 7-point lead two weeks ago. Such a lead isn’t insurmountable, especially in a special election. In particular, it will be interesting to see whether Gomez’s advertisements move the race back in his direction. And Markey’s campaign has been uninspiring to date, so it’s possible a few flubs—and this one doesn't count—could jeopardize his chances. But there are just 18 days until the election, and this is Massachusetts. As long as Markey is aware that Kevin Youkilis is a Yankee, he's likely to become the state's new junior senator.