Massachusetts Senate Race – why lightning didn’t strike twice

The 2010 election cycle, which was one of the most favorable for the Republicans since 1994, had its genesis in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, when a little known state senator named Scott Brown upset the Democratic Attorney General 52-47%.

Lightning didn’t strike twice last night: Rep. Ed Markey (a Democrat with 37 years’ seniority in the US House) defeated Republican ex-Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez 55-45%. To understand why a Scott Brown-like upset didn’t happen this time, it’s important to understand the context of that 2010 special election race, and it’s also worth discussing implications for next year’s midterm elections.

2010 Context

It’s important to remember the circumstances that helped propel Scott Brown to an upset victory in January 2010. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President, and his victory further reinforced existing Democratic control of both houses of Congress. Accordingly, they used their robust majorities to push through legislation that would not have otherwise had much of a chance at passing. And by late 2009, the Affordable Care Act (also popularly known as “Obamacare”) was steadily moving towards passage, despite numerous protests against the proposed legislation that manifested itself in town hall meetings.

In the midst of this, there was a special election that was triggered by the death of Senator Teddy Kennedy, who had occupied the seat for nearly half a century. To replace him, the Democrats selected Attorney General Martha Coakley, who upon receiving the Democratic nomination essentially put her campaign on cruise control. Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated a little known state senator named Scott Brown, who began working the state hard, and he caught the attention of voters with his unique commercials (one of which had Brown quoting JFK about his tax cut). This generated some favorable momentum, which combined with GOP financial support and Brown’s vow to be a vote against healthcare reform, made Brown a viable candidate (of course, several unforced errors by Coakley certainly didn’t hurt).

To put Scott Brown’s 52-47% victory in its proper context, Republicans (even in the 1984 Reagan landslide) rarely win statewide elections in Massachusetts with more than 51% of the vote. It’s also noteworthy that despite the numerous colleges/universities within the state’s boundaries, the bulk of its voters have more of a blue collar orientation, and there are a large number (53%) of voters not affiliated with either of the major parties. Therefore, while liberal university towns (about 5% of the vote) voted 76-23% for Coakley, and inner cities like Boston, Worcester, and Springfield (about 10% of the vote) supported her 64-35%, the remainder of the state (where 85% of the vote is cast) is a mixture of white and blue collar suburbs/small towns, and Brown carried these areas 56-43%. These same areas gave Obama 58% of the vote in 2008 and 56% in 2012.

2014 contest

In 2010, a combination of healthcare reform, an inept Democratic nominee, and an attractive Republican candidate were a winning recipe for Scott Brown. None of those three factors were at play in the special election this year. While the Democrats nominated a veteran Congressman who was elected on the same day as Jimmy Carter, he performed credibly enough in debates and with the overall conduct of his campaign to keep the Democratic/blue collar base united behind him. And while the Republicans nominated ex-Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, his candidacy never quite caught on.

From a turnout perspective, the Democrats turned out the vote they needed to turn out and actually appeared to have outperformed the Republicans. While statewide turnout decreased 48% relative to the 2010 special election, it only dropped 34% in the liberal university towns and 45% in the inner cities. In the rest (i.e., more Republican part) of the state, turnout was down 49%.

The partisan preferences of each region told a similar story of missed opportunity. The liberal university towns that voted 3:1 for Coakley over Scott Brown voted over 4:1 for Markey. Similarly, the inner cities voted 64-35% for Coakley and 72-28% for Markey. Finally, the remainder of Massachusetts (which had favored Brown over Coakley 56-43%) voted 50-49% for Markey. In other words, the “Brown vote” dropped about 5-7% across the board in last night’s special election – more than enough in heavily Democratic Massachusetts to keep the seat in Democratic hands.


While special elections typically follow their own rhythms, the lack of Republican strength in this contest means that a Republican wave is unlikely in the 2014 midterm elections. However, it’s also important to realize that the Republicans are likely to keep control of the House. And if their Senate nominees avoid embarrassing gaffes on the campaign trail that cost them at least 5 seats in 2010 and 2012, they have a shot at retaking the Senate next year, since 2/3 of the seats on the ballot are held by Democrats.

This likely result next year has a historical precedent: the midterm elections held in the sixth year of Reagan’s presidency in 1986. At that point in time, the Republicans were in the unenviable position of defending those senators elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide in a midterm year (historically, the “six year itch” has been problematic for re-elected Presidents), and they lost 9 seats – and control of the Senate. Their fortunes were not much better in the Democratic controlled House, where they lost 5 seats. The Democrats are similarly vulnerable on the Senate side in 2014 since the same seats they have to defend next year were part of the 2008 Democratic wave that also brought Barack Obama to power.