Massachusetts Democrats have been burned before.
In 2010, they watched the unthinkable happen -- the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat slipped through their fingers, thanks to the perfect storm: a lackluster nominee in Democrat Martha Coakley, an energizing GOP candidate in Scott Brown, and a national mood fueled by health care backlash that was beginning to swing against them.
Two and a half years later, Democrats are taking every precaution to avoid repeating recent history.
Rank and file Democratic leaders are flooding to Massachusetts in support of the party's candidate, Rep. Ed Markey, in his bid to succeed now-Secretary of State John Kerry in a June 25 special election. President Obama will be stumping for Markey on Wednesday following a fundraiser the night before hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, former Vice President Al Gore, and Kennedy's widow, Vicki.
“I think most people view this as Markey's race to lose, and everybody want to make sure that absolutely positively doesn't happen, no matter what," said veteran state Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "People believe Markey will win, but nobody wants to chance it."
At Tuesday's fundraiser, Biden warned against the same lethargy, noting that low turnout in special contests has produced unexpected results in the past, and Obama's 23-point victory there last fall shouldn't breed complacency.
“There’s a big difference in this race,” Biden said. “Barack Obama’s not at the head of the ticket. And that means those legions of African-Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out. No one has energized them like Barack Obama. But he’s not on the ticket, so don’t take this one for granted.”
Republicans are similarly quick to point out that they pulled off their 2010 upset after a rapid and unexpected shift toward Brown as polls swiftly moved in his favor until the closing days of the campaign. But, the GOP was aided a favorable climate toward their party and a lethargic Democratic base, and two weeks out there are few signs of the political storm that helped Brown pull off the upset.
In January 2010, national unemployment was at 9.8%, since dropped to 7.6%. In Massachusetts, the jobless rate was 8.7%, now down to 6.4%, below the national average. But it was backlash against national health care legislation that Brown capitalized on, promising to be a critical vote against its passage, that helped him energize voters in the race’s closing days. According to the January 2010 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 46% saw the law as a bad idea, and as the law’s implementation has gotten closer, that’s seen a slight uptick, with 49% saying the same thing in this month’s poll.
But with the Affordable Care Act's implementation a near certainty now, that’s hasn’t been a lightning rod for Gomez and Republicans. And a recovering economy hasn’t been the most fertile ground for an upset, even if there were some initial, hopeful signs for the GOP that there could be a brewing upset. Democrats nominated Markey, a nearly four decade congressional veteran, who Republicans have been eager to spoof as a relic of Washington. During the primary with more moderate Rep. Stephen Lynch, there were grumblings among some Democrats that his campaign wasn't up to snuff. Even though he routed Lynch by nearly 15 points, private murmurings continue that Markey hasn’t run the most invigorating campaign and hasn’t been as omnipresent on the campaign trail as many would have liked.
Republicans got their top choice in through their primary in candidate Gabriel Gomez, who party leaders hope to brand as a new kind of Republican. On the surface, Gomez appeared to have all the assets a Republican Party struggling to expand and grow needed as its new face: A young, Hispanic moderate veteran who had never run for public office before.
Brown by contrast came across as the everyman — riding around in a beat up pickup truck and cajoling on the trail. But Brown was an experienced political hand after serving in the state legislature for over a decade, and while he didn’t come across as a slick pol, he didn’t make any costly mistakes while also taking advantage of many of Coakley’s flubs.
Nonetheless, Republicans have remained cautiously optimistic that Gomez, their “fresh face,” is within striking distance, though both sides privately believe Markey has at least a high single digit lead that’s remained static the past few weeks Though it’s not as comfortable as Democrats would like in such a blue state, but with what’s likely to be a low-turnout election, it may be the best they can hope for.
But many Republicans privately grumble that Gomez's inexperience on the trail has shown. When asked about some of his positions, namely on abortion, Gomez hasn't given the clearest of answers. While the Catholic Republican has said he's personally anti-abortion but respects the current law but didn’t give the most direct answers on some abortion questions, with Democrats particularly hitting him on federal funding for abortions.
In Tuesday’s debate, Gomez aggressively worked again to separate himself from his party and paint himself as a moderate, centrist voice, pledging to support a $10 minimum wage, pay equity for women and gay marriage. But Markey pointed out Gomez is still more in line with his party on base issues, such as opposing an assault weapons ban and supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.
While they’re relying in those issues to get voters to the polls on June 25, Democrats still aren’t taking anything for granted. Markey’s outpaced Gomez in spending, and national Democrats don’t even want this one to get within striking distance for the GOP newcomer. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC have combined to spend at least $1.25 million on ads to help shore up Markey and batter Gomez.
Republicans point to those moves as signs of desperation, but in such a blue state bringing in the Democratic cavalry, much earlier than in 2010, is a safe move, especially with the president’s approval still strong in the Bay State. In 2010, President Obama held an 11th hour campaign rally for the floundering Coakley, heading to the Bay State just two days before Election Day. This time, Democrats are being a bit more proactive, with the president campaigning Wednesday for Markey.
“Congressman Ed Markey and his DC army are trying everything to stop Gomez’s surge and it’s not working,” Gomez spokesman Will Ritter argued.
Some Republicans quietly wonder where the their own cavalry to help out Gomez is, though. While there has been coordinated spending on advertising, Republican outside groups have, so far, kept their distance. The Chamber of Commerce told Roll Call they won't be involved, and on Wednesday's "The Daily Rundown," American Crossroads President Steven Law said they were "still waiting" to decide on whether they'll commit resources.
To Democrats though, the potential benefits of avoiding another embarrassment, especially as Congress heads into critical debate on immigration, the budget, and other matters this summer, far outweigh the GOP’s heckling and charges of desperation.
“We are extremely confident that Markey’s going to win, but we’re taking absolutely nothing for granted,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky.