Yesterday, Democrat Edward Markey bested Republican Gabriel Gomez by ten percentage points (55 to 45) in the Massachusetts special senate election. Today, both parties are likely placing the Bay State back into the "safe blue" column on their target lists and looking past the regularly scheduled 2014 senate race. This may be a mistake.
Don't get me wrong. Massachusetts is a far cry from being a battleground state. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by three to one. And while more than two million of the state's 4.1 million registered voters are officially "unenrolled" with a party, which suggests an opportunity for an independent-minded Republican candidate like Gomez, one need only view the 2012 exit polls to see how far Bay State independents lean Democratic. In 2012, fifty-two percent of Massachusetts independents supported President Barack Obama's re-election. Nationally, Obama secured only 45 percent of the vote from independents.
Still, if Gomez were to re-up for the 2014 contest against Markey, the dynamics would surely be different and the result would likely be less certain than many are now expecting.
Aside from the fact that Democrats spent more money than the Republicans on this race and brought in every party star imaginable -- from President Obama and the first lady to former President Bill Clinton -- the turnout was incredibly low.
For instance, in Billerica, a town in Middlesex County won by both Gomez and former Republican Sen. Scott Brown that has about 25,000 registered voters, the difference between the two special senate elections is stark. In 2010, Brown earned more than 9,500 of the town's nearly 15,000 votes, whereas Gomez pulled in just over 4,100 of the town's approximately 6,800 votes. This is a drop in registered voter turnout of 33 percentage points between the two elections (60 percent to 27 percent).
Although the turnout for midterm elections is usually not something to write home about (typically, it is about 40 to 45 percent of the voting age population), given the present demographics of each party, as other analysts have noted, it tends to favor Republicans. In addition, with Obama in his sixth year in office and with the large number of unresolved scandals weighing down his job approval, the 2014 cycle is more than likely going to be a good one for the GOP.
Beyond the historical factors, Democrats will not likely be able to focus anywhere near as much of their attention on the Massachusetts race next year. They've got far too many senate seats -- from Louisiana to Alaska -- that they need to defend and for the most part, Markey will be much more on his own.
Gomez also ran an impressive campaign. Despite having no prior political experience, he turned in strong performances in the debates, mostly stayed on message and managed to win some towns in Massachusetts (e.g., Chicopee, Fitchburg, and Taunton) that Brown had lost in 2012. The election's results were a few points closer than the Real Clear Politics poll average (12.3 percent) and his vote percentage was just shy of Brown's performance in 2012 (46 percent).
This is somewhat surprising when you consider that (a) Brown was the incumbent senator in 2012 and was something of a national celebrity after his 2010 upset win, and (b) Brown received significantly more support than Gomez did from his party.
While there are no points for second place in American politics, it would be premature to take Gomez's 10 percentage point loss as evidence that Massachusetts is now completely out of Republican reach. Special elections are exactly that: special.
Should Gomez get back into the political fray for 2014 and should the GOP decide to get serious about making a play for this seat, Bay Staters may well see their fourth competitive senate race in four years.