On June 25, Massachusetts will hold a special election to fill the Senate seat John Kerry gave up to become secretary of state. The last special election in Massachusetts, in 2010, produced a spectacular upset that nearly derailed President Obama’s agenda when the Republican, Scott Brown, beat the Democratic favorite. Republicans are hoping to repeat the trick with newcomer Gabriel Gomez, who’s taking on Democratic Representative Ed Markey. Gomez bears the unlikely distinction of at once representing everything the GOP needs—and exactly what it’s trying to leave behind.
The upside: “I’m a green Republican,” says Gomez, a 47-year-old father of four. “I believe in climate change, and I believe that humans have had something to do with climate change.” He also favors gay marriage, pay equity for women, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Oh, and Gomez is himself the son of Colombian immigrants and fluent in Spanish. He’s also a former Navy Seal. In short, he embodies most of what the GOP’s post-election autopsies say is key to broadening its appeal.
The downside: Gomez is also a Republican private equity executive from Massachusetts, which may be the worst credential one could have after Democrats spent $1 billion portraying Mitt Romney as a rapacious corporate raider who preyed on the middle class. Sure enough, within days of Gomez winning the Republican nomination, the liberal Senate Majority PAC dubbed him “Mitt Romney, Jr.”
One curious facet of the current election cycle is that a host of Republican private equity executives have elected to run for office, despite Romney’s drubbing. Along with Gomez, who worked for Boston-based Advent International, former GTCR Chairman Bruce Rauner is running for governor of Illinois, and former Gores Group senior executive Scott Honour for governor of Minnesota. None has escaped comparison to his party’s losing presidential nominee. Liberal groups have anointed Honour “Minnesota’s Mitt Romney.”
What each of these candidates shares is a conviction that he can do a better job than Romney of turning his private sector experience into an asset. Gomez eschews Romney’s claim to be a “job creator,” presenting himself instead as someone whose main business was increasing his clients’ wealth. “The reality of the private equity industry is that our investors are public-sector pension funds and retirement systems,” he said on June 12, as he was heading to address a roundtable of business leaders in Waltham. “Where I worked, there are hundreds of thousands of public-sector employees—police officers, firefighters, teachers right here in Massachusetts—that we’re trying to benefit and grow their retirement funds,” he said.
Gomez, who campaigns in his Navy flight jacket and a Boston Bruins necktie, also takes pains to present himself as having been more than just a private equity executive. Trim and buzz-cut, he has the advantage of not resembling “the guy who laid you off,” as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee famously described Romney. While Gomez made millions, he never approached Romney’s stature and hadn’t even made partner by the time he left Advent last fall.
“I was more on the services side, but depending on how the deals were coming in, we worked on different sectors,” he says. “I worked on industrial deals and consumer retail. I also worked on Lululemon (LULU).” Gomez touts Advent’s investment in the Vancouver-based yoga wear company as a model of patriotic capitalist enterprise. “When we invested in it back in December of 2005, it had less than a dozen U.S. stores. It has a couple hundred now. Literally, [we] Americanized and professionalized and grew a company that had a couple hundred million dollars in revenues when we invested in it, and now has got a market cap of $10 billion.” On the other hand, Lululemon moved much of its manufacturing operations to Southeast Asia and ran into quality-control problems earlier this year, when customers complained that its yoga pants were see-through. Its chief executive officer, Christine Day, resigned on June 10.
Perhaps cognizant of Romney’s fate in Massachusetts last November—he lost by 24 points—Gomez has downplayed his business record and chosen to dwell on his opponent’s 37-year Washington tenure and on his own potential appeal to Democrats put off by Republicans’ increasingly severe profile. He’s received minimal support from the national Republican Party and outside groups, which seem conflicted about his moderate politics and chances of winning. On June 18 his campaign released a poll that had him trailing Markey 47 percent to 40 percent, a slightly smaller margin than recent public polls showed. If Gomez can manage even a narrow loss, he may get another chance at the Senate. Whoever serves out Kerry’s term will have to run for reelection next year.
Markey has largely ignored Gomez’s private equity career, attacking him instead for his opposition to abortion and trying to tie him to the National Rifle Association. (Gomez says he’s not an NRA member; he supports background checks but opposes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.)One reason Markey may be avoiding Gomez’s business record is that Advent International is an awkward firm for a Democrat to attack: Obama’s latest financial disclosure form reveals that part of his pension from the Illinois legislature is invested with Advent. Another is that liberal groups such as Senate Majority PAC are hammering Gomez for his Wall Street ties, sparing Markey from having to attack a prominent Massachusetts industry. But the real reason Gomez has gotten a pass on his business career is that Markey seems to have concluded that what’s even worse than being a private equity executive in the wake of Mitt Romney is being portrayed as a run-of-the-mill Republican.