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Mass. Senate Race May Be Feeling Washington Scandal Fallout

Recent polls suggest Massachusetts Republican Gabriel Gomez (left) is within striking distance of Rep. Ed Markey (right) in a contest for a U.S. Senate seat.
Recent polls suggest Massachusetts Republican Gabriel Gomez (left) is within striking distance of Rep. Ed Markey (right) in a contest for a U.S. Senate seat.

With two weeks until the Massachusetts special Senate election, the obvious question is: Can Republicans pull off another stunning upset like they did three years ago?

Back then, in the very blue Bay State, Republican Scott Brown won the seat left vacant by Ted Kennedy's death by riding a Tea Party and anti-Obamacare wave amplified by voter distress over a sour economy.

An improved economy has changed some of the dynamics since Brown's 2010 win. But it's understandable if Democrats might be having flashbacks right about now regarding the seat left vacant when John Kerry became U.S. secretary of state. Recent polling suggests the lead held by 18-term Democratic Rep. Ed Markey over Republican political newcomer Gabriel Gomez has dropped into the single digits from what was once a substantial double-digit advantage.

Wednesday, President Obama visited Massachusetts to campaign for Markey against Gomez, a onetime Navy SEAL who later worked for a private equity firm.

Obama's comments at a Markey campaign event held in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood were aimed at countering Gomez's constantly repeated allegations that Markey is a nearly four-decade-long Washington fixture who's had a hand in everything that's gone wrong over that period. Obama said:

"Ed has a track record, and that's why you know what he's going to do when he's a senator from the commonwealth of Massachusetts. He's not somebody who comes out of nowhere and says he's for something, and then maybe he's for something else.

"He's been steady, and he's been constant, working on your behalf. He's been strong, and he's been principled. And that's the kind of leader we need right now. That's what we need in the United States Senate. Yes, we can."

Obama remains popular in Massachusetts even though a recent poll indicated that his popularity has fallen somewhat. A Suffolk University poll showed the president's approval rating falling to 60 percent in June, down from 67 percent in May.

Maurice Cunningham, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, believes Obama's approval drop most likely hurt Markey's support levels even though he thinks Markey is still the favorite to win.

"A generic Democrat, in this state, which is largely what Markey is, should always beat a generic Republican, which is somewhat what Gomez is," Cunningham said in an interview with me. "So he should win and the probability is that he will."

The president's luster isn't as lustrous as it once was, Cunningham said. The controversies over the IRS, Benghazi, the Justice Department's seizing of journalists' phone records and the NSA story have tarnished the president. "We don't know how all these things will play out," Cunningham said.

Markey and Gomez have had two debates, with the third, last campaign meeting scheduled for June 18. While political observers generally declared Markey the first debate's winner, the second was seen as more of a draw, largely because Gomez significantly improved his performance.

Gomez may be a Republican, but in Massachusetts that label means something different than it does in, say, Georgia. For instance, he actually contributed to Obama's 2008 campaign. Another example: In the second debate, which took place on Tuesday night, he said he supported raising the federal minimum wage to $10. Meanwhile, the standard Republican attack lines on Obama were AWOL from his debate talking points. It fits into his strategy of stressing his independence.

As Gomez, whose parents hailed from Colombia, has tried to put space between himself and national Republicans, Markey has attempted to link him to them, criticizing Gomez, for instance, for not supporting an assault weapons ban.

While Republicans beyond Massachusetts have stepped up the amount of money they're putting into the race and have been helping in other ways, the sense of some political observers is that the GOP hasn't pulled out all the campaign-funding stops.

Political scientist Cunningham finds it curious that the national party isn't throwing everything and more into the race.

"They're within 8 points. Three and a half years ago all hell broke loose when they showed them within 9 [points] with Scott Brown," he said.

Meanwhile, Markey's campaign is using the tightening polls for fundraising. From an email:

"Election Day is getting closer — and so are the polling numbers in Massachusetts.

"A rash of new polling is showing this race still in the single digits. One poll even has our opponent within one point."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.