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Column: Will history repeat itself for Obama in the Massachusetts special election?

A Republican candidate’s surprise take of the senate seat left vacant by Ted Kennedy’s death in 2010 shook Obama’s administration – now, with the same seat up for grabs, Sam McNally wonders if the president has anything to fear this time around.

Sam McNally

The Senate special election in Massachusetts will be held on Tuesday June 25 following a vacancy created by the resignation of Senator John Kerry in order to become US Secretary of State. The race has drawn media attention due to its potential similarity to the 2010 special election, when Republican State Senator Scott Brown took the same seat – which had once belonged to Ted Kennedy and had long been considered a Democratic stronghold.

The Republican victory in Massachusetts was widely viewed by conservatives outside the state as a referendum against President Barack Obama. Here, Sam McNally considers whether the seat will has the potential to throw another curve-ball at the same president…

Will history repeat itself?

The campaign for Secretary of State John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat is heating up, as John McCain has been enlisted to further energise Republican underdog Gabriel Gomez’s campaign in Massachusetts against Democratic favourite Ed Markey before the recent G8 summit.

The race is particularly interesting as 49-year-old Republican Gomez is already faring much better than expected. Just as Democrats were stunned by a Republican victory in a Massachusetts special election in 2010, many are questioning whether history could repeat itself. The race pits Latino newcomer Gabriel Gomez, an ex-navy seal whose service history, business success and relative youthfulness is proving to be appealing, against political veteran Ed Markey.

A difficult point in Obama’s second term

The special election comes at a difficult point in President Obama’s second term, as his administration fights scandals involving the IRS targeting of conservative groups, accusations of abridging the freedom of the press and increasing Congressional scrutiny over conflicting accounts over the Benghazi embassy attack, in which four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed. These scandals have excited Congressional Republicans who are baying to assign blame to the Obama administration.

These scandals have begun to intrude on the Senate race, as Gomez has tried to link Ed Markey to the spate of recent scandals. He has been critical of Markey’s comments on Benghazi and his national security role, which people are particularly cognisant about in light of the Marathon Bombings, while Gomez has also criticized Markey’s voting record after the Department of Justice’s actions against the Associated Press, with Markey’s having supported votes on the Patriot Act and Homeland Security in the past.

Massachusetts is considered by many to be a “blue state”

Should Republican candidate Gomez succeed in beating the Democratic favourite, it would be a deeply embarrassing result, similar to the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Democratic seat in 2010 to Republican Scott Brown, which represented a low point in Obama’s first term. Massachusetts is considered by many to be a “blue state”, but it’s not a completely fair characterisation. While there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Massachusetts, the majority of registered voters are actually independents. As with Scott Brown in 2010, conservative or moderate Republicans can, on occasion, appeal to such voters.

The appeal of Gabriel Gomez’s campaign has been impressive so far, particularly for a Republican. While Boston is still strongly identified by its Irish roots, his energetic campaign perhaps reflects Boston’s burgeoning immigrant population, which could influence Irish American Democratic Candidate Ed Markey prospects in next month’s special election and potentially create another unwelcome distraction for President Obama.

Perception of the President is at a low point

Obama is undoubtedly battling through one of the most difficult periods in his presidency, as controversies continue to consume the attention of the White House.  The timing for the embattled White House could not be worse, as upcoming votes on a controversial bill to overhaul immigration and presidential appointees, which will be scrutinised in the Senate, are occurring at a time when perception of the President is at low point, with John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House describing the perception of Obama’s administration by many as “remarkable arrogance”.

The challenge for Democrats is made all the more complicated by the death of Democratic stalwart Frank Lautenberg, who died aged 89, of complications with viral pneumonia. Such is the slim Democratic majority in the Senate, which will scrutinise Obama’s appointees, Democratic leaders twice asked Senator Lautenberg to return to Washington in recent weeks to vote, despite his failing health. Last month, Lautenberg, the last WW2 veteran in the Senate, returned to Capitol Hill to provide a key vote that saved Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, while in April his aides memorably pushed him out to the Senate floor in a wheelchair to cast his much needed vote on controversial gun control legislation.

Although a Republican is unlikely to win his Senate seat in the special election later this year, with no Republican having succeeded in being elected to the Senate in New Jersey since 1972, his death has put the New Jersey Governor in an interesting position. Governor Christie, thought to be a contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016, will have to appoint someone to fill the vacated seat until the special election. Christie will no doubt be under pressure to appoint a Republican, to further narrow the Democrats Majority in the Senate, though he will have to tread carefully, being careful to not upset the Republican party and his chances at the 2016 nomination, or New Jersey voters who elected a Democrat.

Many see his decision to appoint the first New Jersey Republican Senator in 30 years, despite upsetting New Jersey voters who elected a Democrat, and choosing to protect his own political fortune by not holding the special election on the same day as the Governors election on November 5th, as there would be a higher Democratic turnout due to the Senate election, as revelatory of his “self serving, egocentric nature”

Developments could impact on the next presidential election

Former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, a major supporter of Hillary Clinton, has warned that the IRS’s singling out of Conservative groups “hurts the Democratic Party and will hurt anybody who runs for president in 2016”, should the White House be found to have been involved in political targeting, or more likely, to have had prior knowledge of the scandal.

Developments in recent months could impact on the next presidential election, with many prospective candidates already having an eye on the 2016 election.

Sam McNally is a Government and Politics undergraduate from UCC currently working in Boston for the Massachusetts State Legislature.

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