(Updates with day of Biden visit in seventh paragraph.)
By Annie Linskey
June 19 (Bloomberg) -- A parade of Democratic stars is marching through Massachusetts to galvanize support for U.S. Senate contender Ed Markey, while Republican opponent Gabriel Gomez looks to Obama administration missteps to propel an upset.
The candidates, running to fill the remainder of Secretary of State John Kerry’s U.S. Senate term, touched on their main themes yesterday in a final televised debate before the June 25 special election.
“What is concerning to me is that you have all of the scandals down in D.C. right now,” said Gomez, 47, at the forum sponsored by the Boston Media Consortium, a group that includes Bloomberg Radio. “The problem is people up here in Massachusetts automatically distrust D.C. And why do they distrust D.C.? Because you have career politicians that politicize everything down there.”
Markey, a U.S. representative first elected in 1976, stressed his Democratic credentials of supporting gun control, protecting union interests and guarding Social Security in a state where his party usually dominates.
“Gomez, he is backing the same old tired Republican problems,” said Markey, 66.
A Gomez victory next week would erode the 54-46 Democratic advantage in the Senate, where President Barack Obama wants to pass a rewrite of immigration laws, and give Republicans a boost going into the 2014 midterm elections. It also would again spotlight Massachusetts as the vanguard of shifting national political attitudes reminiscent of early 2010, when voter discontent helped Scott Brown become the state’s first Republican U.S. senator since 1979.
Massachusetts Democrats, eager to show they are more energized and focused than three years ago, have welcomed Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- as well as singer Carole King -- to the state for separate events on Markey’s behalf. Vice President Joe Biden visits for a rally on June 22.
A poll published June 16 by the Boston Globe put Markey 13 percentage points ahead of Gomez. It showed Gomez with a nine-point lead among unaffiliated voters, who make up about 53 percent of those registered to cast ballots. That edge is short of the 2-to-1 margin he likely needs from that bloc to overcome the more than 3-to-1 advantage registered Democrats have over Republicans in the state, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston.
Gomez can take heart, though, that in 2010, a Globe poll put Democratic Senate nominee Martha Coakley up by 15 points nine days before she lost to Brown, 52 percent to 47 percent, in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy.
The poll showed other ways Gomez may benefit. The survey showed that 40 percent oppose the National Security Agency’s recently disclosed collection of telephone and Internet data, which Obama is defending, while 25 percent support it.
In an earlier poll by Suffolk University, 50 percent said they believe the Obama administration deliberately misled the public about last year’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, and 61 percent supported stricter limits on federal power after it was disclosed the Justice Department subpoenaed records from reporters.
“Clearly the Obama administration is struggling at the moment,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, who teaches politics at Tufts University in Medford, a Boston suburb. “Gomez is in striking distance if there is some significant change. He needs a game changer.”
Gomez has been unable to connect the national scandals to the Senate race in a way that tips it in his direction, said Spencer Kimball, a Republican pollster based in Springfield, Massachusetts, who isn’t working for any candidate.
“That has been a problem for his entire campaign, finding a message that will resonate with voters,” Kimball said by telephone. “I think his outside chance is an ad that will resonate with voters over the last week.”
Gomez has been outspent almost 4-to-1, according to Federal Election Commission records. Markey’s campaign has spent $8.6 million since January, while Gomez’s total is $2.3 million.
Unlike in 2010, when local news was dominated by the campaign to replace Kennedy, a Democrat who held the seat for almost 47 years before his death the previous August, interest in this year’s race has taken a back seat to other matters, said Joe Malone, a Republican and former state treasurer.
The Distractions include the National Hockey League championship series being played by the Boston Bruins, the murder trial of former mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, and the aftermath of the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Only 21 percent of voters tuned in for the first televised debate earlier this month, according to a Suffolk University poll. The second, which took place in Springfield, wasn’t broadcast in the vote-rich greater Boston area.
“It is June and people have their minds on things other than politics,” Malone said. Gomez, he said “never seemed to get to the point where his base was electrified.’
Malone said Gomez, a native Spanish-speaker, missed an opportunity by failing to reach out earlier to Hispanic voters. “It looked like he was running a race geared toward white voters,” he said.
The Republican, a private-equity investment manager and former Navy SEAL who won his party’s primary in late April, launched a “Latinos for Gomez” coalition just last week. El Plantea, the state’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, later endorsed Markey.
Throughout last night’s debate, Gomez sought to highlight Markey as a Washington insider. “You’ve had 37 years to get results,” Gomez said. “You go down to Congress and nothing changes.”
Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said Markey’s long tenure in office and his low-key campaign style may make it hard to get his party’s supporters to vote. “People don’t get excited about Ed Markey,” she said.
Democrats, as part of efforts to avoid another special election defeat, began combating possible voter apathy by re-activating in January volunteers who had mobilized for November’s general election. In that contest, Obama carried Massachusetts with 61 percent of the vote and Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated Brown in his bid for a full six-year term.
“We are going to have every person who voted in the last three elections talked to three times on the phone and have their doorbells rung three times,” Markey said in an interview. “That is a real organizational effort that I think is really going to pay dividends on election night.”
The challenge remains to maximize turnout in an election featuring one race. In November, more than 3.1 million ballots were cast in Massachusetts. In the January 2010 special election, the turnout was less than 2.3 million.
Markey, whose candidacy has been described as “very vanilla” by pollster Kimball and “lacking enthusiasm” by Duffy, has stepped up his public schedule to include more unscripted conversations with voters.
Earlier this week, he visited food trucks in downtown Boston, where he enjoyed the “classic piadina” -- an Italian-style sandwich with prosciutto, arugula and tomato.
He took the occasion to recall a youthful job as an ice-cream vendor, as he sought to connect with a group of listeners.
“You know what I found, driving my ice-cream truck? People were grateful that you were there,” he said.