The Democratic and Republican primaries for the special U.S. Senate election in the commonwealth produced two strikingly different candidates.
One candidate served his country in two of the nation’s most demanding military assignments, Navy SEAL and carrier pilot; the other candidate didn’t serve in the military. One is the son of immigrants from Colombia; the other is the grandson of Irish immigrants. One thrived in the private sector after earning an MBA at Harvard; the other never really worked in the private sector. One is new to politics, having rarely stepped foot in Washington; the other has served in the House for 37 years — a consummate Washington insider.
Republican Gabriel Gomez is waging a steep uphill battle in this race. A new Suffolk University/7News poll has him trailing the other candidate, Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, by 17 points. This is true despite appearing to be, as passersby called him outside the TD Garden last Friday, “a breath of fresh air” in a polluted political environment where congressional approval levels have hit all-time lows.
Gomez, a political neophyte at this level in the recent tradition of Scott Brown, Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, has been able to run a biography-based campaign thus far, which may appeal to some independents. He will soon encounter an opponent who will try to make this race about extreme ideology and motivate the Massachusetts Democratic machine.
Gomez, though, actually has a few things going for him in the special election.
On the issues, he has no voting record for Markey to distort. And — get this — Nate Silver explained recently in FiveThirtyEight that Gomez is in “the exact middle” of a liberal-to-conservative ideological continuum, rendering the candidate the perfect moderate. Silver was cautious to state that this measurement is based on Gomez’s limited set of public statements since he does not yet have a voting record to scrutinize. I would add to this that Gomez just emerged from a Republican primary where there was a rightward issue pressure on him that would have smoked out any further conservative positions. It is, therefore, highly unlikely he would become more conservative on issues during the general election, but rather may tilt slightly leftward prior to June 25. This should help him among the general electorate.
On the ground, Gomez will have to contend with the Democratic machine, and there is no element of surprise this time. But the machine no longer has its grand conductor in Boston. Mayor Thomas Menino, according to some observers, was protecting his personal brand and flexing his political muscle to ward off challengers by motivating the machine in Boston to achieve record turnouts for Warren last November. Now, this focus is split among at least six mayoral candidates and their supporters who are concerned primarily with their own fates in September rather than Markey’s in June.
Markey knows favorable demographics put the electoral wind at his back. There are a few facts that give this perspective.
Democrats hold about a 3-to-1 advantage in registered voters: 35 percent Democrat, a paltry 12 percent Republican, and the remainder independent. This makes it difficult for a Republican to prevail when statewide turnout reaches about 58 percent — the numbers simply aren’t there. As a stark reminder, Rep. Stephen Lynch received about 24 percent more votes while losing the special-election primary than all three Republican candidates received combined. Moreover, the ratio of independents is a bit misleading because many of those voters are left-leaning or, for all intents, Democratic voters.
Another recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found Gomez to be within 4 points of Markey and holding a 47 percent to 31 percent advantage among independents. Yet, it is generally understood among number-crunchers that a Republican needs to capture roughly 65 percent of the independent vote to have a chance to win, depending on how many Democrats defect to the Republican column (PPP, in fact, recalls Brown received 64 percent of these votes in 2010). Gomez may cut into this a little by performing respectably among Lynch Democrats who were put off by their candidate’s shabby treatment by the national party and relate to the Republican’s self-made success story.
Until the release of his telecom ad on Wednesday, Markey has taken the well-worn path of recent Democrats — by going negative. And he’ll continue to go negative, and work to define a Gomez to the electorate who, in reality, doesn’t exist, until Gomez can demonstrate that the cynical strategy doesn’t work against him.
Finally, a disturbing thought has re-emerged among some political insiders that Markey may simply be intended as a placeholder until the regular U.S. Senate election in 2014. Newly minted congressman Joe Kennedy III, among others, would be a likely candidate under this scenario. If this were the case, the Markey candidacy would seem disingenuous. Though I have my doubts, it is odd that Markey does not seem to be a natural product of a party that touts itself as the more ‘progressive’ of the two. In fact, Gomez more aptly fits that bill. While the theory gives pause, I hope it’s not the case — though it is something to ponder when stepping into the voting booth.