The GOP’s Tough Climb in Massachusetts

Gabriel Gomez will have to overcome voter apathy to win his senate race in the Bay State.

U.S. Senate candidate Ed Markey shakes hands with a supporter in Boston, Tuesday, April 30, 2013 as he celebrates winning the Democratic primary for the special U.S. Senate election.
U.S. Senate candidate Ed Markey shakes hands with a supporter in Boston, Tuesday, April 30, 2013 as he celebrates winning the Democratic primary for the special U.S. Senate election.

It's about as good an underdog story as it gets. An independent-minded and energetic outsider with a made-for-Hollywood biography (son of Colombian immigrants and former Navy SEAL with a Harvard MBA and a successful business career) defeats two better known Republicans in a primary election and goes on to win a seat in the Senate against an old-school Democrat and career politician in a deep blue state.

It still could happen. Gabriel Gomez did manage to pull out a surprise win in the Republican primary, and whether or not blue-collar union workers and conservative Democrats will turn out in force for Representative Edward Markey remains something of a mystery.

Markey has served in Congress since first winning a special election in 1976. Not having faced many serious challengers in his thirty-seven years, Markey's never earned less than 62 percent of the vote in a general election. He not only has a 100 percent agreement rating from the liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action, but was also listed as one of its legislative "heroes" for 2012. According to the Almanac of American Politics, he voted in favor of the $820 billion stimulus package and supported the passage of the cap-and-trade bill.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

In short, Markey's about as liberal as northeastern Democrats come and he's got a long voting record. One would think he might be an easy target in a special election.

But what Gomez is finding out is that 2013 is not 2010. Rather than fed-up and angry, Americans seem to be worn-out and disengaged. Despite majorities of the public remaining distrustful of the federal government's power and dissatisfied with the way things are going, not many seem to even be paying attention to the scandals roiling the Obama administration. It's as though Americans have decided that since Washington can't seem to do anything (much less do it well), politics just aren't worth worrying about.

This voter apathy also seems to be fueling something of a partisan retrenchment. As Brent Benson explains, polling in Massachusetts shows that Democrats are lining up behind Markey and independents, while still siding with Gomez, are splitting more evenly down the middle than they did three years ago.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

These data, along with some other noteworthy statistical developments (i.e., the generic congressional ballot currently favors Democrats and the ideological leanings of Americans have recently shifted slightly left) suggest that the status quo (a blue state votes blue) appears more likely than an upset.   

What can Gomez do? Turn in a first-rate debate performance next week and hope to catch Markey making a political gaffe. An altered political dynamic and renewed national media attention on the race could make it competitive again.

But with President Obama endorsing Markey and the First Lady helping his campaign, it's clear that the Democrats are not taking this contest for granted. If Republicans are looking to win it, they'll need a lot more than a few staffers to create the picture perfect ending for their party. Then again, politics isn't much like it is in the movies, despite Washington being a whole lot like Hollywood.

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