Castellanos: A Republican who can win
If anyone wants to transform the old, lifeless, "white-guys-in suits" caricature of the Republican Party, look no further: Your dream candidate has arrived. Gabriel Gomez is an antidote to the stuffy Republican establishment that only says "No" and scares next-generation voters away.
Sledding uphill in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts, the young and energetic Gomez is running to fill Secretary of State John Kerry's vacated Senate seat, calling himself "a new kind of Republican." Surprisingly, in this bluest of states, he has drawn within single digits of his Democratic challenger. Even stranger, perhaps, is that GOP money and support has not matched the flood of Democratic money that is pouring in on behalf of his opponent. Gomez has made it a close race with only a modicum of GOP help.
His opponent, the plodding Ed Markey, is tailor-made for an upset. A lifelong career politician, Markey is the poster boy for everything that's wrong with Washington. The Boston Globe reports, "The only jobs he would ever hold outside of politics were summer gigs as 'Eddie the Ice Cream Man' selling Fudgsicles and Beatle Bars out of an ice cream truck and a stint as a substitute teacher." Markey has spent 37 undistinguished years in Congress, unencumbered by accomplishment, warming the same seat since "Saturday Night Fever" was a hit, John Travolta was thin and disco lived.
During his tenure, Disco Ed has danced with the Washington establishment: He bounced 92 checks in the House banking scandal, took a million dollars in campaign contributions from special interests he regulates and voted himself regular pay raises while raising voters' taxes. When asked whether he could recall opposing a tax increase favored by his party's leadership, Markey told reporters he'd have to get back to them. If Markey has made Washington work, it has only been for himself.
A weak candidate, Markey is being well advised that he should debate only when necessary and, preferably, after the election. In their most recent head-to-head, when Gomez challenged that Markey didn't understand the math of job creation, Markey responded, "It's really not math. It's just arithmetic," drawing laughs on Twitter and despair from his elementary school instructors. Foghorn Leghorn could have been describing Markey when he said, "That boy is as sharp as a bowling ball." Word inside the community of Washington political consultants is that Democrats are growing increasingly anxious, "seeing ghosts of Scott Brown" and not liking their survey data.
In his fundraising appeals, Markey himself is citing a Republican poll that calls the race a "dead heat." The PollTracker Average shows Markey with only a 6-point advantage. And a Suffolk University poll that had Markey leading by 17 points last month shrank that lead to just 7 points last week. At this point in the special election in 2010, Scott Brown was behind 9 points yet came from behind to take the race.
Markey has hit the panic button. On the House floor a few days ago, a Republican congressman overheard a desperate Markey running up to a group of House Democrats, saying he needs a lot more money to win, that he feels it is too close and could lose -- and he's worried about a repeat of the 2010 election.
Though President Obama remains popular in Massachusetts, anti-Washington emotion is cresting because of the IRS, Benghazi, news media snooping and NSA scandals, piled on top of America's stagnant economy and Washington's unstoppable indebtedness. There is a sense in Massachusetts, as everywhere, that "Washington is out of control, like 2010," one of Gomez's consultants told me, "and we need to send an outsider to watch the insiders." Markey, who spends most of the year at his home in the D.C. metro area, is on the wrong end of that anti-Washington sentiment. Changing Washington is Gomez's campaign.
A businessman who worked in private equity, as he explains, "building the retirement savings of firefighters, public school teachers and policemen," Gomez graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis with merit. He then gained an invitation to flight school and earned the wings of Navy pilot, flying early-warning E2-C Hawkeyes and C2-A Greyhounds off aircraft carriers. That wasn't enough for Gabriel Gomez. He asked to transfer to the Navy SEALs.
Though he knew that 80% never complete the grueling training and was warned he would lose his Navy pilot status if he didn't make the cut, Gomez started again from scratch, committing himself to the elite Special Operations force. He succeeded with distinction, becoming a SEAL platoon commander. There was still room for accomplishment on Gomez's résumé: After his service, he attended Harvard and earned an MBA.
A son of Colombian immigrants, Gomez speaks fluent Spanish, as he proved in this week's debate, responding to one question entirely in the language of his parents' birthplace. A GOP that is struggling to reach out to a growing Hispanic audience couldn't ask for a better candidate. GOP Chairman Reince Priebus proved again why he is exactly the right man to be leading his party at this moment of transformation: The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to their credit, put on their big-boy pants and bet early and heavy on Gomez. Still, though Gomez is finally getting some help from GOP supporters, the most familiar independent pro-GOP groups have been sitting unexpectedly on the sidelines.
As of June 12, the Markey campaign and outside pro-Markey groups were outspending the pro-Gomez forces on TV the final two weeks, $5.1 million to $1.8 million. The old GOP establishment is playing it safe. Steven Law, who runs Karl Rove's Crossroads super-PAC, has even told heavy-hitting GOP contributors to stand down because Gomez is "too far behind to win."
The GOP needs Rove and Crossroads. In fact, the Republican Party is dependent on Rove: No one else on can raise the hundreds of millions he can to offset what pro-Democratic groups pour in against Republicans like Gomez. It would be foolish for any Republican to wish Crossroads anything but success.
It's understandable that Rove and Law now want to be cautious and appear as responsible stewards, after blowing $300 million of their contributors' money in 2012 with nearly nothing to show for it, but they are paying a terrible price.
No doubt the odds augur against any Republican in Massachusetts, as they did against Brown, but Gomez is a dream GOP candidate, running against one of the densest career politicians in D.C., in an anti-Washington environment -- and he's within single digits. It's time for the GOP to stop paying lip service to Hispanic outreach. This is the moment for Republicans to grow a pair.
If not, we may not only blow our chance for a next-generation Republican to pick up a Senate seat but also the party's chance to turn things around and build momentum for the 2014 elections. Candidates like Gomez are the future. A GOP that wants a future should bet every chip on him. Gomez has adopted the SEAL ethic of "team first" as his own. It would serve all Republicans well.
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