“Here in Massachusetts you have a long history of sending smart, tough, hardworking leaders to the Senate, who roll up their sleeves and fight the great battles on behalf of middle-class families and everybody who’s trying to get into the middle class,” he said, before rattling off their names in quick succession: Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren.
There was, of course, one recent Massachusetts senator missing from the president’s list: Scott Brown. In 2010, Mr. Brown, a Republican, sent the Democratic Party in this deep blue state into a tailspin when he upset Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in a special election to replace the late Senator Kennedy.
Now, with the special election for Mr. Kerry’s former seat just two weeks away, Representative Markey is leaning on a growing cast of Democratic heavyweights to help him avoid that same fate at the hands of youthful Republican Gabriel Gomez. And he’s using them, by and large, to tout a simple fact – that there is an election at all.
“Markey knows he has got to raise awareness of this race,” says Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. “Republican turnout is pretty consistent in this state, but the Democrats have to get people to pay attention and turn out.”
That may seem simple in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 3 to 1 and Obama carried the vote by 24 percentage points in 2012. But special elections have a curious momentum, Ms. Jenkins says.
Without other races or referendums to energize voters, the candidates have to build excitement from a base level of zero. And this time around they have to do it on a political off-year, just as the Massachusetts winter thaws into a sunny New England summer and the Boston Bruins head for the finals of the Stanley Cup.
That challenge wasn’t lost on Markey Wednesday. He opened his speech to the crowd gathered in the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood by taking a jab at the president’s sports loyalties.
“In a few minutes you will be hearing from a man who has the most difficult job in the United States of America,” he said. “The man I’m about to introduce is a Chicago Blackhawks fan and his job will be to present the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins,” he told the crowd to raucous cheers.
Hockey fandom aside, the president’s tone was serious as he called upon the audience to rally the party’s base in the two weeks before the election.
“This election is going to come down to turnout,” he said. “We’ve got a whole lot of Democrats in this state and a whole lot of Obama votes. But you can’t just turn out during a presidential election, you’ve got to turn out in this election.”
In fact, that was exactly the problem for Democrats the last time around. Turnout in the 2010 special election was only 54 percent, and it was lowest in the parts of the state that Obama had carried by the widest margins two years earlier. That helped create the perfect storm of political circumstances that doomed Ms. Coakley’s campaign despite her obvious partisan advantage.
Waiting for the rally to begin, Gail McCormick, a Markey canvasser in the nearby town of Arlington, said the Brown-Coakley race serves as a continuing reminder to Democratic organizers in the state.
“After Brown, we don’t take anything for granted anymore,” she said. “We’re doing whatever we can to get people to come out and vote.”
The off-year, off-season nature of the election, however, has had one marked upside for both candidates. They have both been able to rally major names in their respective parties to campaign for them. In addition to Barack Obama, Markey has also played host to first lady Michelle Obama, and Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., his campaign hosted a fundraiser attended by Al Gore and Vice President Joe Biden. (Markey himself had to stay in Massachusetts to participate in a debate.)
For his part, Mr. Gomez has campaigned beside Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in recent weeks, helping to boost his image as an independently-minded Republican.
The Markey campaign also announced Wednesday that former president Bill Clinton will join him at a rally in Worcester Saturday. The election is scheduled for June 25.