In last Gomez-Markey debate, distinct styles but fuzzy policy differences

Policy differences were nuanced between Democrat Ed Markey and the GOP's Gabriel Gomez in Tuesday's debate, the last before the US Senate election in Massachusetts. But the candidates' styles – policy master vs. fresh-faced outsider – could not be more distinct.

Meredith Nierman/WGBH/AP
US Senate candidates, Republican Gabriel Gomez, left, and Democrat Rep. Edward Markey, right, before a debate moderated by R.D. Sahl, center, Tuesday, June 18, at WGBH studios in Boston.

With a week remaining until the June 25 special election for John Kerry’s former US Senate seat in Massachusetts, the two candidates met Tuesday night in a debate that set the tone for the final days of the campaign: energetic, divisive, and at times downright petty.

As the conversation swept from NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden to the candidates’ tax returns to the merits of affirmative action, Democrat Edward Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez bickered over policy nuances that in other states might be reserved for a Democratic Party primary.

Mr. Markey told Mr. Gomez, for instance, that he was galled by the fact that the Republican did not support a ban on the sale of assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

“You’ve been completely misrepresenting my view on gun control,” Gomez shot back, citing his own support for legislation requiring extended background checks for potential gun owners – a bill that only four Republican senators voted for earlier this year. “I’m the one who’s going against the NRA,” he added.

And when the debate turned to affirmative action, both candidates rushed to support the policy.  

“I don’t think we’ve reached the day yet where we can say that race doesn’t play a role” in public life, Markey said, while Gomez told the audience that “everybody should have equal opportunity to achieve the American dream.”

That provided a strange twist to the debate, says Marc Landy, a political scientist at Boston College, because even many Democrats are skittish about supporting affirmative action and the topic has not been heavily discussed in this campaign so far. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard a Republican express that kind of support,” he says.

But if the candidates’ messages were sometimes hard to parse, the stylistic differences between the two were prominent. Gomez was the charmer, tugging his personal story – as a businessman, a Navy SEAL, and an immigrant – toward center stage on nearly every question. Meanwhile Markey, an 18-term congressman, played the policy wonk – unshakeable in his positions, encyclopedic on his knowledge of Beltway politics.

But Gomez also displayed a new nimbleness on issues of policy, particularly national security, says Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science and international studies department at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. “If you’ve been watching him progress since the primaries, you see there’s been a huge amount of improvement as a candidate in his ability to answer questions and not rely on canned one-liners.”

The candidates had substantive exchanges on National Security Agency surveillance – both support prosecution of self-described whistleblower Edward Snowden – and how best to wind down the long US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, the moderator’s efforts to direct the conversation to a wide variety of policy areas didn’t stop the two men from deploying familiar refrains throughout the evening.

Markey worked to paint Gomez as wealthy and secretive, digging into him for his low tax rate and for refusing to release a list of clients he’d worked with during his career in private equity.

“Mr. Gomez makes 10 times more than I do per year, and he paid pretty much the same tax rate,” he said.

Gomez, meanwhile, played to voter fatigue with career politicians.

“I think 37 years is enough time,” he said, referring to the nearly four decades Markey has spent in Washington as a congressman. “I ask you to give me 17 months to see if I fit this role. If I have, reelect me, and if I haven’t vote me out.”

That’s a popular message among Gomez’s supporters as well, dozens of whom gathered outside the studios of WGBH-TV in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, where the debate was held Tuesday afternoon. As a drizzle splattered Gomez campaign signs reading SEAL THE DEAL and NO EASY DAY, Victor Navarro, a young financial analyst and Peruvian immigrant, said he appreciated Gomez’s fresh take on Washington politics.

“This is the future of the Republican Party,” he said. “He appeals to younger people. Ed Markey has been in Congress longer than we’ve been alive.” 

Across the street, Markey campaigner John Gates said his main concern in the week leading to the election is turning out the masses of voters who have tuned out election coverage so far.

“It’s been tough to get people involved,” he said. But as he canvassed and phonebanked, he has been regularly deploying a key phrase to spook Democrats into hauling themselves to the polls next week: Scott Brown. Mr. Brown, a Republican, snatched a surprise victory from Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in a 2010 special election for a Senate seat.

Brown’s victory shocked Democrats in part because a Boston Globe poll the week before that election showed him down by 15 percentage points. That’s heartening news for Gomez, who trails by 13 points according to a Globe poll released over the weekend.  

In fact, the Gomez campaign has already begun to spin that down-but-not-out message to its advantage. In a memo to Gomez’s staff Tuesday, Republican political strategist Curt Anderson said the candidate has been a tenacious fighter against an opponent with four times his funds and three times the number of registered voters in his party.

“With the tonnage of negative advertising that Cong. Markey and all these outside interest groups have poured into Massachusetts, one would think Markey would be running in the clear at this point,” Mr. Anderson wrote. “But he’s not.”

Gomez himself didn’t shy away from that message. Addressing the debate’s significance, he told reporters it was a turning point for his campaign.

“You saw the beginning of the comeback of the underdog guy,” he said.

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