In the first month of the general election campaign for John Kerry’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts, Republican Gabriel Gomez developed a stable of reliable talking points as he crisscrossed the state in his trademark green bomber jacket. He was a Washington outsider, a nonpartisan reformer, and a former Navy SEAL with a personal commitment to America’s national security.
But when prompted to discuss so-called women’s issues, his easy confidence suddenly deflated. He haltingly told reporters and debate audiences that he was “personally pro-life” but wasn’t headed to Washington to change the law, repeatedly dodging specifics on questions relating to abortion and women’s health.
Voters began to take notice. Between early May and early June, a set of polls from Boston public radio station WBUR showed Mr. Gomez’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, surging ahead with female voters – jumping from a 15-point advantage in early May to a 21-point lead this week.
That may not seem surprising, given the Democratic leanings of female voters nationwide. But in a deep blue state like Massachusetts, the calculus is different, says Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth.
This is the state, after all, where Republican Mitt Romney ascended to the governor’s mansion in 2003 on the promise that he would “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” (He later changed course.) On social issues important to female voters – reproductive rights, gun control, the social safety net – Massachusetts Republicans often seem closer to their Democratic opponents than to the GOP in Washington.
“Gomez has tried to distance himself from the Republican Party on issues that are a priority to women,” Ms. Jenkins says. “He doesn’t want to say he’s pro-choice exactly, but he knows that in Massachusetts, you also can’t say you’re pro-life and going to Washington to do something about it.”
That’s an awkward dance, however, and it’s led to some perplexing moments on the campaign trail. In the first debate between the two candidates last week, for instance, Gomez appeared caught off guard when asked if he would support a 24-hour mandatory waiting period for a woman wishing to have an abortion.
“On that specific one, I think asking someone to wait 24 hours before they can go and actually have an abortion isn’t asking a lot,” he said.
The next day, his campaign clarified: Gomez had misspoken. If the issue came up in the Senate, the campaign said, he would vote against a waiting period.
In an earlier interview with The Boston Globe, he also stumbled over a question about the Blunt Amendment – a proposed measure permitting employers to deny workers birth control coverage based on the employers' moral beliefs.
“Honestly, I haven’t read the Blunt Amendment, so it’s hard for me to go yea or nay,” he said. When Representative Markey’s campaign later challenged Gomez on Twitter to take a more coherent position, Gomez campaign press secretary Will Ritter brushed the debate aside, calling it an “inside baseball freakout.”
For his part, Markey has made Gomez’s fumbles a centerpiece of his campaign. He’s released a blitz of ads accusing the Republican of flip-flopping on important women's health issues and campaigned beside several prominent female Democrats – including first lady Michelle Obama and singer Carole King – to send the message home.
Gomez “wants women to trust that he’ll protect our hard-fought rights, and he can’t even bother to read [the Blunt Amendment],” said Boston city councilwoman Ayanna Pressley at a rally for Markey with President Obama this week. “This would be funny if it wasn’t so scary.... Your rights, signed, sealed, delivered to [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell ... that is what is at stake here.”
Women played a central role in the last two Senate races in Massachusetts, though in divergent ways. In 2012, Democrat Elizabeth Warren unseated Republican Scott Brown by a margin of eight points, buoyed by her 20-point margin among female voters. However, in a special election two years earlier, Mr. Brown won the seat in part because women failed to show up to vote for his opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
But given the strange dynamics of an off-year special election, all is not lost for Gomez with female voters, says Jenkins, the political scientist.
“If you go out and ask women in this state what they think of what Gomez said about abortion in the debate, they’re going to say, ‘There was a debate?’ ” she says. “It’s a low-visibility election, so to the extent that you can get people to start paying attention in these last few weeks, you can change things.”
Gomez is hoping, perhaps, that undecided female voters chose Tuesday night's debate to start tuning in to his campaign. After the two candidates tussled over ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and tax loopholes, moderator Jim Madigan asked both men if they supported the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proposed law that would make it simpler for women to sue employers over wage discrimination. Brown voted against it in 2012.
Gomez didn’t hesitate. “I think it’s a disgrace that we even have to have an act that makes women equal with men. It’s just common sense,” he said. “Obviously I would support that.”
He followed up Wednesday with a blunt response to an ABC reporter who asked for comment about Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks's recent statement that rapes rarely result in pregnancy.
“I think that he’s a moron, and he proves that 'stupid' has no specific political affiliation,” he said.