Massachusetts Republicans got a glimmer of hope this morning after days of rejections from heavy-hitting politicians weighing possible runs in the state's upcoming special election. Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow said today he is forming an exploratory committee for the U.S. Senate seat vacated when John Kerry went to head the State Department.
"Today I'm taking the necessary steps to form an exploratory committee to test the waters for the U.S. Senate," Winslow said in a statement on his website. "We need to fix a broken Washington where progress is being hampered by partisan gridlock."
This is the closest a Republican has gotten to throwing his or hat in the ring after a series of higher profile GOP leaders in the state announced that they would be staying away from the race.
Former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who was seen as the likely front-runner for the GOP nomination, announced last week that he would be sitting out this round. His announcement seemed to open the floodgates for Republicans, kicking off a series of similar decisions from officials thought to be strong options for their party: Former Gov. William Weld, former state Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and Tagg Romney, the eldest son of Mitt Romney, have all said thanks but no thanks to the special election
As for what's behind the steady stream of rejections, bottom line: It's a steep hill to climb.
Any candidate will need to gather 10,000 signatures before the end of February. That's a lot of names to gather in a short period of time, but presumably would not have been difficult for well-known candidates like Brown or Weld. Another concern is timing.
Massachusetts state law stipulates that the winner of the special election will fill out the rest of the term of the individual whom they were elected to replace. And John Kerry would have been up for re-election in November 2014, meaning that whoever wins that seat in June will face another election in just 17 months.
That might not be a huge concern for Democrats in the state, but it is for Republicans. If a Republican candidate were to win the special election, there's a strong slate of potential Democrats who could mount a strong challenge in 2014, including Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Gov. Deval Patrick, who is serving his last term in "the corner office" (what Massachusettsians call the governor's office.)
Not only would these candidates have strong backing from national Democrats, who would view the seat as one of their best chances for a pick-up, they would also have the basic benefit of being a Democrat in a blue state in a general election.
The upshot is that scheduling makes this a tough sell for Republicans. There's also a strong possibility that many in the party were just caught off guard when the man they thought would get in -- Scott Brown -- said no (via text message to a Boston Herald reporter).
The state Republican Party is "optimistic" about the upcoming race, pointing to the party's recent success in special elections.
"The party is optimistic for the special Senate election," Massachusetts GOP communications director Tim Buckley said. "Republicans in Massachusetts shocked the world in 2010 and Scott Brown proved a state representative or a state senator, a hard working Republican candidate with the best interest of Massachusetts in mind can win state wide."
There are two long-time U.S. representatives running on the Democratic side: Ed Markey of Malden and Stephen Lynch of South Boston.
As for Winslow, 54, there's no doubt this would be a tough battle because of his low name recognition, but that might be a good reason to do it. After all, Brown was relatively unknown when he was elected.
Another GOPer still being discussed is former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, who is meeting with national Republicans this week.
Boston GOP consultant Rob Gray said "waiting as long as he did, Scott Brown put the party in a tough spot."
"The February 27th signature deadline is more of a roadblock than a speed bump. Ten-thousand signatures is not easy to achieve in a three-week period when you are starting from scratch," Gray said, adding that's why, despite the "exploratory committee," he's not completely convinced Winslow will get in with Gomez already meeting with national Republicans.
"If there's one candidate the party gets behind, even with the limited infrastructure of the party plus the candidates and the candidate's campaign and resources, they could meet the signature deadline. If it's two guys competing to get 10,000 signatures without the assistance of the party and their resources it's highly unlikely one or both don't make it," Gray said, noting the party is required to stay neutral among all Republican candidates who get in.
Signatures for a Republican candidate can only come from registered Republicans or registered Independents.
"When you think about registered voters, plus no Democrats, more than half of the people you approach at a shopping mall can't legally sign your signature sheet," Gray, a consultant at Gray Media, said. "It's not impossible, but there are not a lot of Republicans in this state. There are not a lot of arms and legs and field troops. When you split already limited resources between two candidates, it's certainly not impossible, but getting the signatures will be difficult."
Does the possibility of not having a high-profile name or even a credible candidate in 2013 do anything to hurt the probability of Republicans' taking the seat in 2014? Gray thinks they are "unrelated."
"A lot of potential candidates who were put off by the late negative decision by Brown for the special election would consider the 2014 race. assuming that a Democrat wins the special election," Gray said. "Similar to Brown, some of the names floated about these past few weeks looked at it and said, 'Why do I want to run in a special to wake up the next morning and start to run again in 2014?' I don't think it does impact the 2014 race."
Gray noted that a gubernatorial election year could also be better for Republicans, but added he does believe Brown would have ended back in the Senate if he had gotten in.
"I think if Brown would have gotten in, he would have won," Gray said, "but I guess he didn't think that."