Do or Die

Gomez or Go Home: The Massachusetts Senate Race Is Down to the Wire—and It Matters Big Time

Massachusetts voters will hit the polls on Tuesday to elect a senator to fill John Kerry’s seat. The winner could tip the balance in Washington, writes David Freedlander.

Elise Amendola/AP

BOSTON—Scott Brown had his truck: a green GMC Canyon he used to criss-cross Massachusetts during the 2010 special-election campaign in which he nabbed Ted Kennedy’s old seat.

Gabriel Gomez has a pair of white Nikes and lightweight running shorts. The Republican nominee for the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by John Kerry arrived Thursday in Cohasset, his hometown on the gold coast south of Boston, in this decidedly unsenatorial get-up. He was sweating, having jogged from the next town over, four miles away.

“We are running for the Senate, right?” Gomez told The Daily Beast, by way of explanation. “We are going to do a lot of different things. We are going to run the campaign. We are going to run road races. We are going to stay in shape. We are going to set the example out there. And this is how I stay fit. This is how I stay mentally, uh, sharp,” he continued, bringing his index fingers to his temples.

Gomez was a few minutes early, since on this particular jaunt he was paced by a Boston Globe reporter who tagged along for a story. But still, it was five days before the election, and this is Gomez’s hometown, and there were only a handful of well-wishers in front of the local American Legion hall who gathered to cheer him on.

With a campaign that has been going on since January, when Kerry was nominated to be secretary of State, it has proven hard for Gomez to run away from Brown’s shadow. These days, many Republicans in this state seem to yearn for the days of 2009, when Brown, a former model turned state legislator, upended expectations and took the Senate seat that had been bequeathed to Kennedy and, many thought, to Democrats ever after. That victory, over the notoriously uncharismatic Martha Coakley, gave Massachusetts Republicans their first reason to cheer since Mitt Romney left town. It was also the first evidence of the Tea Party wave that was soon to crash on the nation’s shores.

The Brown-Coakley race has become a talisman for both Gomez’s camp and his Democratic opponent, longtime congressman Ed Markey. For the GOP, it is proof that even here, in perhaps the nation’s most famously liberal state, good things can happen. For Markey, it is a constant reminder that unless Democrats are energized and get to the polls, disasters lurk.

Brown, after serving an abbreviated term to replace Kennedy, was defeated in the fall by Elizabeth Warren, whose populist rhetoric on financial reform made her a hero among Democrats as much as Brown is among Republicans. Warren became such a cause célèbre among liberals around the country that the joke in Democratic circles here is that the only effort her fundraising team had to expend was opening checks as they poured in.

Brown had flirted with running again this year, but decided against it. And so Gomez, who on paper—an ex-Navy SEAL turned venture capitalist—looks like the perfect Republican, jumped in. But he still can’t quite slip the comparisons to Brown.

“No, Scott is going for the gold. This race made no sense for him,” said Conley Ford, a past Legion commander who had come here to greet Gomez. “I know Scott. He is saving himself. We are going to see more of Scott Brown. Wait until 2016.”

What did this mean—that Brown would run for governor? That he would run for the Senate in neighboring New Hampshire, as he as also talked about. Or…“Just wait until 2016,” Ford responded.

Although the Brown-Coakley race heralded a new era in American politics, this one may be even more important. That’s because if Barack Obama is going to have any hope of completing his second-term agenda, he will need a Democratic Senate, and with the Democrats certain to lose seats in the midterms, there is no cushion to muck about in what should be safe Massachusetts.

Markey has relied on this talking point throughout the campaign. He has served in the House of Representatives since 1976. If he wins, he will become one of the longest-tenured members of Congress to win a spot in the Senate. Yet even his staffers acknowledge he is a wooden candidate, a result of a long career in the ponderous halls of the House. In part to turn this election away from his own personality, Markey has made it a referendum on the national Republican Party, reminding Massachusetts Democrats of what happened the last time a special election was held in the state. In this telling, Gomez isn’t Brown, who was one of the most moderate members of the GOP caucus, but more like Jesse Helms, someone who favors arming everyone with an AK-47, would gut Social Security, and would help outlaw abortion throughout the land.

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The race has turned surprisingly nasty. If Gomez is Helms in Markey’s telling, Markey is Henry Cabot Lodge, a lawmaker who has been in office longer than some of his furniture. “Congressman Markey wishes he was running against Newt Gingrich or Mitch McConnell or even Gerald Ford, who was down there when he first got to Congress,” says Gomez. “He doesn’t realize that he is running against a new kind of Republican, and he is running against me, Gabriel Gomez.”

“Congressman Markey is running a full campaign on scare and misleading people,” Gomez continued. “There have been a lot of statements out there and ads out there that have been quite deceiving. On Social Security, on abortion. He tries to mislead people from the beginning and the reason is that he is scared.”

Asked about this, Markey said, “All of my ads just use his words. When he said he opposes an assault weapons ban, when he said he opposes a ban on high capacity magazines, that is what he said. I differ with Mr. Gomez on issue after issue. All of what I use are his words. And that is not negative. That is what campaigns are all about. He characterizes that as negative. I characterize that as the issues.”

The biggest issue in the race, though, has just been getting people to pay attention. Kennedy and Kerry had a nearly 80 years combined in the Senate, and after the excitement of Brown’s victory, and then Warren’s victory, Massachusetts residents have had trouble paying much attention to the race. The distractions have bordered on Biblical. There was a winter blizzard, the Boston Marathon bombings in the spring, a contested Boston mayoral race for the first time in two decades. Now the trial of Whitey Bulger is dominating the headlines. A debate conflicted with a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup playoff game. Markey had a TV spot before his event in Brookline that kept on getting interrupted with news that a New England Patriots football player was being sought in connection with a murder.

A few hours after Gomez’s run was finished, Markey appeared for a Get Out the Vote rally in Brookline, a Democratic stronghold where the locals speak fondly of legendary congressman Barney Frank. Markey was late, and a saxophonist entertained the 90 or so people gathered with “Danny Boy,” an Irish dirge that lent a melancholic air to what should have been a boisterous proceeding.

A poll had just come out that showed Markey with a 20-point lead. It was by far his biggest lead of the campaign, which previous polls had put in the high single digits, and which outpaced even Markey’s private polls.

Neither side thought the poll was much good for them. On Gomez’s side, the campaign has been furiously telling reporters that the race is closer than it appears in order to convince partisans that they are within striking distance. Democrats fear that if their side thinks it is a walk, that no one will show up to vote on Tuesday.

“We have never had a vote for three days before the July 4 weekend,” Markey says, reminding voters of yet another distraction taking minds away from politics. “I feel just like the Boston Bruins. We are taking nothing for granted. You can’t win the Stanley Cup and you can’t win a Senate race in Massachusetts if you think that the race is not close. And I think it is a lot closer than that.”

Asked about how this race could compare to the Brown-Coakley tangle three years ago, Markey sent a warning: “It’s important. Obviously Mitch McConnell is trying to win this seat and then send a signal that the goal would be to win the entire Senate in 2014. So we have to win this.”