Why US Senate race in Massachusetts is Ed Markey's to lose

Ed Markey is a Democrat with high name recognition running in a blue state, and polls show him leading the GOP's Gabriel Gomez. But another US Senate race, in 2010, showed that Massachusetts voters can mete out some surprises.

By , Correspondent

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    Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick (l.) applauds while joining Democratic US Senate nominee, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, at a campaign event in Boston, May 8. Markey is running against Republican Gabriel Gomez in the June 25 special election.
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It's Ed Markey’s race to lose.  

The veteran Democratic congressman has a seven-point lead over Republican Gabriel Gomez in the special election for US Senate in Massachusetts, according to a new poll by the League of Conservation Voters and Public Policy Polling.

The poll is the third in recent days to show Mr. Markey, a four-decade veteran of the House of Representatives, with a healthy margin over Mr. Gomez, a Navy SEAL and businessman who is making his first major foray into politics. 

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A poll last week by Boston public radio station WBUR put Markey’s lead at six percentage points, while a Suffolk University/WHDH-TV poll gave him a towering 17-point advantage.

With less than six weeks until Election Day, Markey remains the comfortable favorite, although to understand why you have to read between the polling numbers, says Marc Landy, a political scientist at Boston College.

“Polls vary, and they should be taken with a salt-shaker of salt,” he says, “but what Markey’s got that’s more substantive is a lot of money, a lot of name recognition, and a very Democratic state.”

To overcome that, Gomez will need both elbow grease and a Markey misstep. He can run a brilliant campaign, Mr. Landy says, but unless Markey makes a major fumble, the Democrat’s advantages may be too significant to overcome.

But the Massachusetts Democratic establishment isn’t resting just yet. That skittish attitude comes courtesy of one man: Scott Brown.

In 2010, Mr. Brown, a Republican state senator and self-proclaimed “Washington outsider,” stormed to a surprising victory over Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in another special Senate election. His victory had a meaningful effect in Washington, tipping the number of Republicans in the Senate to 41 – just enough to maintain a filibuster.

Though Brown lost his seat just two years later to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, his meteoric and unexpected rise in the traditionally Democratic Bay State remains a cautionary tale for the party faithful.

But Gomez is not the next Scott Brown, says Professor Landy. For one thing, while Brown wasn’t well known outside Massachusetts before 2010, he’d been “working like a dog for a decade” in state politics. Gomez's name recognition, by comparison, “is dreadfully low,” he says.

Of 880 likely voters polled in the recent PPP survey, 48 percent said they planned to vote for Markey and 41 percent favored Gomez. More than 10 percent of voters said they were still undecided.   

The gap between the two candidates has widened since the May 1 primary, when another PPP poll showed Gomez inching within four percentage points of Markey. Since then, Markey has consolidated his lead within his own party, suggesting that “the more Democrats learn about [Gomez] the less crossover appeal he has,” the pollsters wrote.

But even as Markey widens his margin over Gomez, experts are keeping close tabs on the leanings of the state’s independent voters. While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 in Massachusetts, independents account for about half the voter rolls.

They’re the ones Gomez will have to rope in if he wants to pivot the race in his favor. And he’s chipping away at that base. His share of independent likely voters has jumped from 47 percent to 56 percent in the past three weeks, according to the two PPP polls.

Many voters, however, still say they don’t know enough about the fresh-faced investment banker to make a call one way or the other. A full one-quarter of likely voters aren’t sure if they have a favorable or unfavorable view of him. (Only 11 percent, on the other hand, aren’t sure about the far more recognizable Markey.)

What’s more, only 19 percent of minority voters have a positive impression of Gomez, although he hopes to pick up votes with that group in part by accentuating his own Latino heritage (he’s the child of Colombian immigrants). 

But that will be an uphill battle, even for a man with bona fide emigrante credentials. Latinos make up just 6 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, and in 2012 they supported Democrats 9 to 1. 

Gomez's last best hope, Landy says, will be Massachusetts moderates. 

“In some ways," he says, "Gomez is a great candidate for the Republicans here because he’s hardly a Republican at all.” 

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