The unofficial slogan for Massachusetts Democrats as they work toward a special U.S. Senate election next month is “Remember 2010.”
That was the year that political newcomer Scott Brown won the seat held for 46 years by the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy and became the first Republican to prevail in a Massachusetts Senate race since 1972.
“For us, screwing up a U.S. Senate election is not theoretical: We have done it,” John Walsh, the state Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. “It’s not going to happen again.”
At stake in the race is the partisan tilt of the Senate at a time when President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority for his second term -- revising immigration laws -- will be on the floor and up for votes. Democrats and their allies are seeking to maintain a 55-45 advantage over Republicans.
To demonstrate the party isn’t resting on its 3-to-1 voter registration edge over Republicans in Massachusetts, Democratic leaders are lining up behind nominee Representative Ed Markey, 66, including first lady Michelle Obama. She hosted a fundraiser for him today in Boston and urged her listeners to “keep writing those checks” for Markey’s campaign.
The president, who has a 67 percent approval rating in the state, according to a recent poll by Suffolk University, endorsed his fellow Democrat yesterday.
Markey’s backers also are revving up a get-out-the-vote effort for the June 25 election earlier in the campaign than they did in 2010.
Even so, there are enough parallels to 2010 that some Democratic strategists are concerned about a repeat.
As was the case three years ago, the Republican nominee, Gabriel Gomez, 47, tells a compelling life story as the son of Colombian immigrants who grew up to become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
Also like the last special election, some Democratic officials are grumbling about their nominee’s light campaign schedule as another Obama legislative priority -- the health-care measure that eventually passed -- hung in the balance. And, as was the case with Brown, recent polls show Gomez holding a lead among independent voters, though Markey is shrinking the gap. Fifty-three percent of those on the Massachusetts voting rolls are unaffiliated.
“My concern is that people aren’t as actively involved and there isn’t the enthusiasm level” needed to ensure a win, said Cynthia Curtis, who raised money for Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s successful 2012 Senate race and is doing the same for Markey.
Curtis also is monitoring voter fatigue. This is the third U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts in less than four years. Markey and Gomez are competing to fill the seat held for 28 years by Democrat John Kerry, picked by Obama to be secretary of state. “It is exhausting,” she said. “And it is expensive.”
Republicans, eager to replicate the 2010 result, are cutting a path similar to the winning one blazed by Brown, even down to the candidate’s wardrobe: Brown’s omnipresent brown, leather jacket, which signaled an informal and approachable style, has been replaced by Gomez’s olive-colored, bomber-style jacket that includes a Navy SEAL insignia.
Gomez events are designed to appeal to independents by highlighting his personal story and connecting him with voters, such as shaking hands outside of Boston Bruins hockey games.
“Gabriel Gomez is the American Dream,” said Leslie Little, 58, of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, at a rally headlined by Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a Vietnam War hero. “A Navy SEAL, his wife in the Peace Corps, it’s made for TV.”
Supporters punctuated the rally with spontaneous cheers, including a man who started yelling “Go! Go! Gomez!”
Markey’s appearances rarely provoke such enthusiasm, as the candidate, most often wearing a business suit, sticks to the same script he’s been using for months. The National Rifle Association, or NRA, should stand for “Not Relevant Anymore,” he says.
Michelle Obama sought to motivate the crowd at today’s fundraiser. “We must summon the passion and energy that got our friend Elizabeth Warren elected,” she said. “We need to summon the same passion and energy that got Barack Obama elected.”
“We’re fired up, Michelle,” a woman in the audience yelled.
“Be fired up!” the first lady said, as her speech ended.
For Democrats, the key to the race is their field operation.
A political action committee founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management LLC in San Francisco, plans to put money into turning out voters who care about climate change, said PAC adviser Christopher Lehane in an e-mail. The group spent about $538,000 backing him in April’s Democratic primary, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Markey, who has served in the U.S. House since 1976, has a team that includes “dozens” of former paid workers from the Warren and Obama campaigns, said Carl Nilsson, Markey’s field director, and they are adding more.
Robert Fitzpatrick, 38, got involved with Markey’s race after Martina Jackson, a woman he met during the 2012 Warren campaign, knocked on his door and asked for help. Her pitch: We worked so hard to get Obama and Warren elected, it would be a pity to lose this one.
He’s spent weekends this month canvassing targeted neighborhoods in Newton, a Boston suburb. “If I care as much as I do about these issues -- I have to do it,” he said before heading out on a rainy Saturday morning.
Markey has shown signs of weakness even with his party base. In the primary, he received about 1,700 fewer votes that the candidate who won the Democratic nomination in 2010 --and that primary election was held in December.
Those results are “cause for worry for the Democrats in the state,” said Peter Ubertaccio, the political science department chairman at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. “There is worry, and there is panic; I’m not sure it is cause for panic.”
Gomez’s team is creating a field team with “over 3,500” new volunteers, according to Will Ritter, the campaign spokesman. He said the team is “aggressively courting” independent voters and those who supported Markey’s opponent, fellow House member Stephen Lynch, in the primary.
The effort included a recent event in Braintree where Gomez invited the press to sit in as he asked a family of “lifelong Democrats” to support him.
A pair of recent polls shows Markey up by double digits, including a May 23 survey by Emerson College that put him up by 12 percentage points. That poll also showed Markey eroding Gomez’s lead among the independents; Gomez had an 11-point edge, down from his 21-point lead in a survey released May 1.
Still, making accurate predictions about a special election has proved difficult. A Boston Globe poll had the Democratic nominee up by 15 percentage points nine days before Brown won the Jan. 19, 2010, special election.
“We work very hard to never let our team get distracted by polling,” said Nilsson in an interview. “We’ve seen how quickly things can change.”