The lessons of Massachusetts

Sam Patten Political Consultant
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There shouldn’t be anything surprising about a liberal Democrat winning a statewide election in Massachusetts, as Edward Markey did Tuesday night when voters there sent him to fill John Kerry’s old Senate seat. But for Republicans — even in the true-blue Bay State — the defeat of Gabriel Gomez is a clarion call for figuring out what we’re doing wrong and what we must do to start winning elections again.

Gomez, the Republican nominee, was a uniquely attractive candidate. A self-made businessman, former Navy SEAL and Latino, he epitomized a fresh and hopeful new direction for the Grand Old Party. Even though Massachusetts is home to the Kennedy dynasty and has long been considered one of America’s most left-leaning states, Republicans have won statewide office there on a half-dozen occasions in the last two decades, so the road before Gomez was not uncharted. In a low-turnout election, though, Gomez was hurt by the fact he couldn’t generate the enthusiasm that would have been necessary to push him over the top.

Driving across Western Massachusetts on Monday, my wife and I passed a Volvo station wagon festooned with Markey signs. Listening to the radio, we were bombarded with Markey ads. And, after recent Markey-boosting trips to the state by both President Obama and Vice President Biden, the local news was filled with stories about Markey’s double-digit lead, no doubt dampening what enthusiasm may have stirred in those who saw in Gomez the hope for a repeat of Scott Brown’s 2010 upset in the race to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Given the threat Gomez posed, the Democratic Party’s big guns came out firing. There was precious little back-up for his candidacy from national Republicans.

But beyond the mechanics of what didn’t happen in Massachusetts this week, there remains a haunting question for Republican everywhere: What, today, is it that we offer American voters? Hammered by Democratic efforts to paint us as a party of old, rich, white men out of step with a changing America, our response to date has been less than compelling. Republicans have been forced into the position of reacting on almost every issue, living up to the caricature that Democratic strategists have crafted for us as the Party of No. Breaking out of this defeatist mold requires a new message.

One of my biggest disappointments about electoral politics in every country I’ve worked is that the outcome, more often than not, doesn’t come down to who led the more brilliant campaign but rather to who screwed up the most. That said, banking on the increasing scale of Democratic failures in office is not a winning strategy. However humiliating Benghazi, the IRS-gate scandal and the excesses of NSA eavesdropping may be — however dispiriting the specter of Edward Snowden prancing about the world’s dictatorships in the name of free expression is to our national image — it is not enough for Republicans to simply win by default.

America in 1980 was a bruised country, with the ultimate embarrassment of the Iranian hostage crisis dogging a failed president. Yet Ronald Reagan understood that he needed a hopeful message to get across the finish line, and “morning in America” did indeed deliver the day. Rather than just invoking Reagan’s name at every opportunity, Republicans must follow his example and come up with a plan for restoring the national spirit.

Republicans don’t have to agree with each other on everything, and the lambasting that Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz delivered to former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearings earlier this year need not set the template for every future discussion between “true believers” and “Republicans in Name Only” (RINOs). Instead, Republicans need to remember what brings us together: the belief in limited government, the trust in the power of the marketplace to fuel prosperity and the faith that a strong America is the best force for peace that the world has ever known.

By contrast, Democrats, intent on maintaining power at all costs, are likely to forget their unifying principles. The party that rose to dominance in the ashes of the Great Depression may have modernized its image somewhat, but beneath the surface, it remains bereft of new ideas.

Fixing the GOP’s long-standing message problems was too tall an order for Gabriel Gomez, who valiantly fought for a 17-month stint in the U.S. Senate. Yet his defeat carries more important lessons for us than the defeats of Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana or the decisions by Florida’s Charlie Crist and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee to leave the party. The promise the Gomez candidacy offered demands that Republicans think long and hard about what we need to do to win when another promising new candidate appears on the scene. Despite the election of Markey in Massachusetts on Tuesday, America is still hungry for a real alternative to the Democratic Party.

Sam Patten is an international political consultant who has worked extensively on elections in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. Domestically, he has worked on senatorial, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, has been an aide to both U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and, in the George W. Bush administration, an advisor to former Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky.