Gabriel Gomez, the Republican Senate candidate running in the Massachusetts special election to replace now-Secretary of State John Kerry, knows his path to victory lies in convincing the blue state voters that he's a different kind of Republican. And it may be working, as a leading political analyst now calls the race a toss-up.
Speaking Monday at a diner in Quincy, Mass., Gomez declared his independence from the national GOP brand, citing his support for legislation that would require background checks on all gun sales, gay marriage, immigration reform and believes climate change is real and partially the result of human behavior.
"One of the things I am going to change in Washington is my own party," he said, according to prepared remarks. "I am fully aware that in a few months from now, some in the Republican Party who will consider me to be a pain in the butt. And I am OK with that."
He also echoed remarks made by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Republican, who said the current Republican Party should "shut its doors" for awhile as it looks to re-boot following a largely failed 2012 election effort.
"If the Republican Party can't bring themselves to appeal to every American voter, they should just shut their doors," Gomez said.
The speech is aimed at pushing back against claims by Gomez's Democratic opponent in the race, Rep. Ed Markey, that the former Navy SEAL and businessman will just be an extension of the Republican Party if he's elected.
Markey's campaign pounded Gomez last week after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent out a fundraising request on Gomez's behalf and is launching a web video today to reinforce the message.
But Gomez sought Monday to turn the tables on Markey.
"Here's the truth of the matter: The people of Massachusetts are independent minded folks," he said. "But Congressman Markey is not. He votes the party line 99 percent of the time. That's a recipe for exactly what we have right now in Congress – dysfunction, gridlock and failure."
Special elections typically have a much lower turnout that regular contests and many Massachusetts voters may be tuned out of the race as summer begins. That could spell trouble for Markey, if traditional Democratic voters sit home because they assume he has the race well in hand.
But Democrats remain confident that their party infrastructure will deliver a Markey victory and say Gomez's speech papers over larger issues where he is "out of step" with Massachusetts voters.
"I know he's scrambling to find a couple things to say he disagrees with Republicans on, but those disagreements are not so bad that Mitch McConnell is not willing to kick in $100,000 to help him get elected," says John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
Walsh points specifically to Gomez's pro-life position and opposition to a so-called federal assault weapons ban.
Gomez's effort to don the Rockefeller Republican mantle, once thriving among Republicans in New England, comes as very few such politicians remain in Congress. A longtime standard-bearer for the moderate Republican cause, former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine recently declined to run for re-election because her centrist voice was pushed aside by party conservatives in Washington.
But by spewing moderate ideals, Gomez is giving himself the best chance he can at knocking off Markey.
The Cook Political Report recently moved the race from "leans Democrat" to "toss-up."
"Structurally, this race still favors Markey, but as we have said, special elections are quirky things," wrote Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Report, in an analysis released May 30. She cited voter turnout and campaign spending as important "x-factors" for the June 25 election.
On Gomez's emphasis on his "new Republicanism," Cook says, "it is really the only option for a Republican in Massachusetts. Neither of the more traditional conservatives even did that well in the primary."
Polling on the race is varied, with some showing Markey leading by single digits and others by as much as 12 percent.