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U.S. Rep. Edward Markey's defeat of Republican Gabriel Gomez in the U.S. Senate special election this week has exposed a rift in the GOP over how to revive the state's beleaguered party.
In one camp: a Republican establishment that credits the first-time candidate with running a strong campaign and chalks up his loss to the Democrats' lopsided financial edge; for this contingent, there is no major course correction required — just more fresh faces like Gomez and a ramped-up fundraising operation.
In the other camp: a small group of operatives who say a shallow, uninspiring Gomez campaign speaks to a fundamental problem with the party's strategic direction.
Massachusetts Republicans, they argue, need to emulate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — trafficking in big ideas and tell-it-like-it-is toughness, even as they practice a moderate brand of politics.
The trouble, critics maintain, is that the GOP's brain trust — forged by former governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney — tends toward the safe and managerial when a creative, entrepreneurial approach is required.
"On the face of it," said GOP consultant Todd Domke, "you can see that there's a lack of talent on the Republican side."
Whatever the root cause, the Massachusetts Republican Party is in the midst of a tough stretch.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker failed to unseat Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010. And there were more disappointments last fall.
Richard Tisei fell just short against vulnerable U.S. Rep. John Tierney. And three years after Republican Scott Brown stunned the political firmament with his victory in the race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat Elizabeth Warren cut his Washington career short.
But if the losses left some Republicans despondent, Gomez's ascendance this spring provided some hope.
The son of Colombian immigrants, he served as a Navy SEAL before pursuing a lucrative career in private equity. His campaign put that biography front-and-center. And Republican officials say it was the right move.
"We focused on Gabriel Gomez's biography because he had a great one," said Kirsten Hughes, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. "People have to know who you are and why they want to like you."
Gomez adviser Lenny Alcivar added that the focus was particularly appropriate for a first-time candidate operating on the compressed calendar of a special election.
But GOP operative Paul Moore, who managed the campaign of Gomez's Republican primary rival Michael Sullivan, said the GOP nominee's personal story — if compelling — was not enough.
In 2010, Brown combined his fresh-faced appeal with a critique of President Obama's unpopular health care reform. Moore argued that Gomez had to take principled, attention-grabbing stands, too.
"You have a GOP candidate with a nice biography who didn't run on anything," said Moore.
Gomez did call out the national Republican Party for opposing expanded background checks for gun purchases and turning a blind eye to climate change. But Moore said the critiques looked like an opportunistic bashing of a GOP unpopular in Massachusetts.
Gomez, he argued, should have taken on Republicans and Democrats with equal vigor.
"Both parties are screwed up, both parties have spent the country into oblivion and both parties have played on people's fears of each other," said Moore. "Gomez played half of it — criticized Republicans. Well, fine. Criticize the Dems where they're weak, too. People will say, 'OK, you're really independent, you're really going to tell us what you think.'"
Moore noted that Christie has made good use of this tack. But the New Jersey governor, brash and quick on his feet, is a unique personality.
And it's not clear the national controversies Gomez might have latched onto — the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' records and the fallout from the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya — packed the punch of Obamacare.
Gomez aides dismissed the critics out of hand.
"It's silly observations from people who have no clue how to win in Massachusetts," said Alcivar, who also worked on Baker's gubernatorial campaign and Romney's presidential run.
That the Democrats brought President Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden to Massachusetts to campaign for Markey, he added, is evidence that Gomez ran a strong campaign.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney aide who served as a consultant to pro-Gomez super PAC Committee for a Better Massachusetts, suggested the Senate campaign yielded no grand lessons for the GOP.
"Massachusetts is a tough nut to crack for Republicans," he said. "It's the capital of the Democratic Party, in many respects. It's the home of Kennedy and Kerry and Dukakis."
If the GOP wants to compete in that environment, Fehrnstrom said, it has to match Democrats' campaign spending.
"If Gomez had outspent Markey 2-to-1," he said, "Gomez would be the senator-elect today."
It was a source of frustration, in and around the Gomez campaign, that national conservative donors did not equal the investment of environmentalists, unions and a Democratic super PAC on Markey's behalf.
Fehrnstrom, who produced television ads for the Committee for a Better Massachusetts that never aired for lack of funding, said Republican donors were fatigued after spending heavily in the 2012 elections nationwide with little to show for it — and leery of investing in "deep blue Massachusetts."
The string of GOP losses may make the Bay State even less attractive for conservative donors going forward, throwing the establishment's strategy — put more money behind Gomez-like campaigns — into doubt. But Republican officials played down that concern.
Fehrnstrom said Romney and Brown have shown that Massachusetts Republicans can raise money. And Hughes, the party chairman, cast the scant fundraising in the Senate race as an anomaly.
"The people who traditionally give will always continue to do so," she said.
Republican consultant Domke said money won't make much difference, though, without a major rethink of the party's message.
"If [Gomez] had spent several million more...on the same mediocre ads," he said. "I don't think the result would've been any different."
This program aired on June 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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