Last Friday brought the news that Scott Brown will not run in the special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat. Brown followed his announcement (by text to the Herald) with an explanation that was: one part I’m tired; one part the political world is too partisan; and one part it’s time to make some money. Republicans scrambled for a candidate; Middlesex DA Gerry Leone started rethinking his withdraw from elective politics; and Steve Lynch and Ed Markey spent the weekend campaigning. Meanwhile, plenty of GOP voices argued that Brown was wise to not run because it is (apparently) impossible for a Republican to be elected in Massachusetts. Today brings the news that former Gov. William Weld will not be a candidate and that Tagg Romney is thinking that he might run. I take issue with two ideas that occupied too much of our political attention this weekend: (1) that partisanship in politics means that it is not worth pursuing; and (2) that a Republican cannot be elected in Massachusetts.
First, Scott Brown’s claim that increased partisanship means he shouldn’t run makes no sense to me. You can’t fix institutions if you refuse to participate in them. If it’s right (and it may be) that the House and Senate are broken, it’s up to good people to run, win and change them. I am sure, as Brown and others have said, that this is not a fun job. The stakes, however, justify the effort. The past few years show the price we pay for a broken Congress. Battles over the debt ceiling; the sequester; the inability to confirm judges (both those nominated by Bush and those nominated by Obama); and the character of the debate itself (caustic instead of reasoned). From where I sit, a credible basis for a candidacy would be a refusal to engage in such behavior and a belief that reasoned debate (even from a deeply ideological position) is itself a value that a candidate could bring with them to Washington.
I think that’s the campaign Scott Brown ran the time he won, and not the time he lost. In his race against Elizabeth Warren, Brown took an aggressively combative approach that focused on issues he said went to character, rather than on what kind of Senator he had been or would be if elected to a full term. I have argued before that he lost the race, at least in part, because of his decision to confront now-Senator Warren at a level that had very little (if anything) to do with ideas. Brown’s last race shows that the voters of the Commonwealth are not going to elect someone on the basis of image (think barn jacket and truck) and labels (think independent). Instead, as Warren’s campaign shows, it’s about substance. Massachusetts voters listen. They listen and then they decide.
Second, our collective willingness to listen and decide is exactly why the notion that only Democrats can win here is wrong. It’s too easy to say that Scott Brown proves that point. But you just need to look at our history to see that he is one of many points of reference. We elected Brown, Mitt Romney, Weld, Paul Celluci and Ed Brooke. Sure, Democrats have an edge. That’s about policy, though, and not machine. If a deeply conservative Republican were to say that she was not going to run statewide because she could not win, she would probably be right. A well-financed, principled moderate, however, might well have a chance. It’s just not as clear-cut as despairing Republicans make it seem.
So, what does that mean for the special election. I think it means that there is a real opportunity for the GOP. It’s clear that Lynch will give Markey everything he can handle. If Leone gets in, it’s hard to see who is the favorite (assume it is Markey if Leone stays out). Whatever the ultimate composition of the field, the race will leave bruises and political bruises are opportunities for the other party. That should tempt Dan Winslow to run. Winslow, a state representative and Governor Weld’s former counsel, can credibly claim to be the kind of politician whose voice could help end the gridlock in Washington. He is very much in the mold of the GOP leaders Massachusetts has embraced in the past and he is dedicated and engaged in a way that suggests he will part of the conversation going forward for some time. Rather than giving up on this race, GOP leaders should be urging Winslow to get in. Then, Winslow can study, prepare, and build while the Democrats fight with one another.
I’m a Democrat and I expect that Kerry’s successor will be as well. At the same time, I love the level of politics possible in this Commonwealth and I think a Winslow candidacy would give us the kind of Senate race we all want and deserve. His candidacy would demonstrate that partisanship in politics is not a barrier to entry for potentially gifted leaders, and, at the very least, that a Republican (who is not Scott Brown) can mount a serious campaign for Senate.