The Republican Party, in its struggle to be competitive in Massachusetts, has made two types of mistakes in picking candidates: the experienced party loyalist who is way too conservative for the general electorate; and the self-funding newcomer, hoping to take advantage of the party’s lack of a solid bench to jump the line. The experienced loyalist usually goes down to a quick, principled defeat, with a videotape of a debate performance and about 40 percent of the vote to show for his or her troubles. The newcomer burns bright for a moment — a fresh face, a creative approach — but the first slip-up usually spells doom: When voters know little about a candidate, and there’s no track record to speak of, it’s easy to think the worst of him or her.
As it happens, Republican primary voters this year have Senate candidates who fit each of these profiles to a T. Former US Attorney Michael Sullivan has a long resume as state representative, the elected district attorney of Plymouth County, and even a stint as head of George W. Bush’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. At 58, he evokes the peace of mind of a man who long ago committed himself to certain ideological views and isn’t inclined to rethink anything: Tough on crime, conservative on social issues, skeptical of government’s ability to solve problems, steadfast against almost every Democratic spending initiative. It’s a familiar litany, one that might put Sullivan on a path to victory in, say, North Dakota.
The fresh face belongs to Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL and private-equity millionaire who touts his business background to fix government — even though such experience usually translates better to the governorship than the Senate. Nonetheless, Gomez has thrown some interesting wrinkles into the GOP race, campaigning before inner-city voters who don’t usually vote Republican, making a point of speaking Spanish before mixed audiences, taking time off to run the Boston Marathon. Yet when some of his supporters learned that he had once written to Governor Patrick to seek appointment to the Senate seat, promising to uphold certain aspects of President Obama’s agenda, they dropped him like a hot potato. That’s neither fair nor wise, but it underscores how little people know about Gomez. A longer campaign, in which he could crisscross the state to cultivate grassroots support and develop a deeper understanding of the issues, might have served him better. He could be an intriguing candidate in future elections.
Luckily for the GOP, however, there is a third candidate in the race — and he’s both highly qualified and innovative, one of the best-rounded candidates to emerge in either party. State Representative Dan Winslow, a former district court judge and legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, has fought to build the Massachusetts Republican Party for three decades, excepting his eight years on the bench. At the State House, he’s offered detailed plans to cut spending, earning praise from Patrick’s staff; but he’s also been an aggressive critic of the governor, understanding that for the Republican Party to be a credible opposition, it must be both substantive and forceful. In the Senate campaign, he’s broken with much of the national GOP on gun control and environmental protection, though on neither issue does he go as far as most elected Democrats: He wants to claim the center ground, and declares that the Massachusetts Senate race will be the first step in remaking the national Republican Party.
If that sounds familiar, it is: Winslow’s politics bear some resemblance to those of Scott Brown, whom Winslow advised. Brown’s willingness to seek bipartisan solutions was widely admired — even though he ultimately lost by 8 points to a Democrat who promised to be a stronger advocate.
But that’s where the resemblance ends. Brown cast himself as an everyman, a Mr. Smith who went to Washington to try to talk sense into the blowhards on both sides. Winslow is more of a political pro. He vows to use his unusual stature as a Republican unbound to the GOP leadership to start pulling together a centrist coalition on day one. “You’ll always know where I stand, even when I’m wrong,” is a constant refrain.
That’s an implicit criticism of Brown’s hand-wringing style, but it also reveals something of Winslow’s personality: He’s colorful, energetic, and intelligent, but those qualities sometimes pull against each other. (Voters don’t necessarily want a senator who gleefully pursues quixotic proposals.) Winslow’s challenge, should he become the nominee, is to prove that his qualities can cohere: That he can be an effective leader, more than an entertaining gadfly.
Republican voters should give him the chance. Winslow is well-positioned to probe the weaknesses of the Democratic nominee, who will be a long-serving congressman whichever candidate prevails. All voters should appreciate having a real choice, and the GOP should be seeking a candidate who can win. Winslow is both.