The temptation is to view congressional special elections as a harbinger of things to come.
Take 1991, for example. A year before Bill Clinton captured the White House, a little known Democrat named Harris Wofford won a U.S. Senate special election in Pennsylvania by making a blue-collar pitch for health care reform (beer-and-shot politics being a wee stretch for a Yale Law grad whose middle name was Liewellyn). The same theme worked for fellow Yalie Clinton in 1992 (not coincidentally, Clinton and Wofford shared the consulting services of James Carville and Paul Begala).
Nearly two decades later, in Massachusetts, another Senate contest was a preview of coming attractions. In the race to replace the late Ted Kennedy, Republican Scott Brown pulled an upset in the deep-blue state by simply offering himself as a regular truck-driving guy who was fiscally conservative and deeply suspicious of Washington – pretty much what worked for GOP candidates later that year in retaking the House.
On Tuesday, the Bay State was the site of another Senate special election – this time, to replace John Kerry (Massachusetts has now held four Senate elections in the past five year). But history didn’t repeat itself. Democrat Edward Markey breezed to victory – a 10-point win that Barack Obama carried by 23 points in 2012 – in a contest that offered little in the way of drama or voter interest.
1) Boston, Home of the Big Dig Yawn. Candidates, unlike Kardashians, have to work for media attention. The last thing they want is a crowded news space, or excuses for voters to forget about their civic obligation. Now, consider what the two Massachusetts candidates, in trying to crack the airwaves in Boston, encountered in this week’s vote:Whitey Bulger’s trial (think Jack Nicholson’s psychopath in The Departed), the Bruins battling at home for the Stanley Cup, a New England Patriots’ star now under arrest in a homicide investigation. Add to that the timing of the contest – late June, when families are on vacation, plus some mischief from Mother Nature in the form of an Election Day heat wave which maybe kept some folks away from the polls – and small wonder that the turnout in this contest seemed historically awful. That won’t be the case in the fall of 2014, despite the public’s low regard for Congress.
2) This Time, It Was Personal. The Massachusetts special of 2010 had its focal points – the Kennedy legacy, the 41st vote against Obamacare. While there were some departures from the policy stage (for example, Democrat Martha Coakley calling Red Sox legend Curt Schilling “another Yankee fan”), the contest wasn’t ugly. In 2013, instead of Lincoln-Douglas, Massachusetts’s voters got Tyson-Douglas – a very personal brawl. Markey accused his Republican foe, Gabriel Gomez, of playing fast and loose with his tax returns. Gomez, a first-time candidate and former Navy SEAL, called Markey “pond scum” after an ad likening the Republican to Osama bin Laden (here’s a look at the two campaigns’ attack ads). The 2014 races won’t lack for their personal digs, but they’ll also be more policy-driven in that Republicans will make be making the case against six years of the Obama presidency, while Democrats will push against the idea of total GOP control of Congress.
3) The 2014 Numbers Game Didn’t Change. In 2010, as previously mentioned, Brown represented the 41st vote against Obama – huge ramifications for Washington and the nation. Had Gomez somehow pulled an upset, he would have pushed the Republican total to 47 seats – enough to make cloture votes a little more challenging, but not the same dramatic shift as that 41st vote. Moreover, just as Brown was ousted in 2012, Gomez may not have had much of a shelf life in a state where Democrats still enjoy a 3-1 advantage in registration (to give you idea of just how formidable edge it is, Brown had to win 65% of the independent vote in that 2010 special election to escape with a 5-point win). As for 2014, Massachusetts doesn’t factor. What will decide the balance in 2015 and beyond is how Republicans fare in Senate contests in seven states that Mitt Romney won in 2012 (compared to only one Obama stare – Maine – where a Republican incumbent is being put to the test). Those red states are: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Win six of those seven states (Nate Silver thinks that’s iffy, at best) and Barack Obama gets to experience the same joy as the last three presidents in completing the final two years of their administration: the opposition party controlling both halves of Congress.
Follow Bill Whalen in Twitter: @whalenhoover