Originally written for Back Story, a weekly email newsletter by Commonwealth Magazine.
In the 2010 special US Senate election, enthusiasm from the nascent Tea Party movement helped propel Scott Brown past Martha Coakley. In the 2013 special election, the Tea Party is nowhere to be found, and Gabriel Gomez isn’t exactly turning over rocks looking for it. To be sure, there is a whiff of Tea Party-style anti-establishmentarianism in Gomez’s plan to “Reboot Congress,” his digs at Markey’s decades-long tenure in Washington, and his Chevy Chase address. But Gomez’s rhetoric about compromise is a far cry from Brown’s defiant promise to be the deciding vote against Obamacare in 2010.
Is Gomez missing an opportunity to rally the conservative base? Perhaps, but our polling suggests openly courting the Tea Party in Massachusetts would come with a heavier political price this year than in 2010. The political dynamic has fundamentally shifted from 2010, when Brown was able to tap into Tea Party support without risking significant blowback from the unenrolled voters he needed to secure victory. Today, the Tea Party is a known (and largely disliked) quantity in Massachusetts, and by pursuing Tea Party support Gomez risks alienating the unenrolled voters and conservative Democrats he needs to catch Markey.
While not at its nadir (recorded in October 2012, during the presidential race), the Tea Party is far less popular in Massachusetts than it once was. The Tea Party is now seen favorably by just 22 percent of likely voters in the upcoming election, less than half the number who see the group favorably. This represents a sharp downturn from late 2010, when the movement was relatively new and less clearly defined as exclusively conservative. At that time, slightly more Bay Staters held a favorable view (39 percent) of the Tea Party than unfavorable (38 percent). Among the all-important unenrolled voters, the ratio was 46 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable. In our new poll released this week, just a quarter of unenrolled voters view the Tea Party favorably, a 20 percent drop in just under 3 years.
National polls on the question show a similar trend, and reach back a bit further. The earliest Tea Party poll on pollingreport.com was fielded the week before the Brown-Coakley election. It found a majority of registered voters nationally (58 percent) said they hadn’t heard enough about the Tea Party to form an opinion. With numbers like those, one could make the case that Scott Brown thrust the Tea Party into the national spotlight as much as the other way around.
Of course, ignoring the Tea Party and labeling oneself a new kind of Republican risks turning off other Republicans, and, according to our poll, Gomez may be doing just that. Only 80 percent of Republicans in our most recent poll plan to vote for him, on par with a series of other polls showing the same dynamic. By comparison, both Brown and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker carried 90 percent or more of the state’s Republicans in their respective elections.
If Gomez loses, he’ll be criticized by some in his party for failing to engage his base. But the polls suggest he may have little choice but to pursue his current strategy. The Tea Party in 2013 is simply not the Tea Party Scott Brown tapped into in 2010. And absent a groundswell of conservative enthusiasm and simultaneous support from unenrolled voters, it’s unclear how Gomez – or any Republican, including Brown – wins a statewide election in Massachusetts.
Update, June 24, 2013: Text and chart of Tea Party favorability in Massachusetts revised to include likely or registered voters from all polls.