Independents key to hotly contested Massachusetts Senate race

W. James Antle III | Managing Editor

In the waning days of the Massachusetts special Senate election campaign, Republicans are searching for signs of an upset while Democrats are cautioning against complacency.

Vice President Joe Biden recently warned Democrats not to take the race for granted. A respected Bay State pollster remarked that the Democrat’s lead had “dwindled.”

Throughout the contest between longtime Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez, the Democrat has held an underwhelming but steady lead in the polls ranging from the high single digits to the low double digits.

After releasing a poll showing Markey clinging to a 7-point lead, Suffolk University Political Research Center director David Paleologos said, “The normally solid terrain that a statewide Democrat traditionally enjoys in Massachusetts has become a little muddy, and if these privacy issues continue, that footing could cause Markey to sink further.”

Then the Suffolk poll was followed by a Boston Globe survey showing Markey up 13 points, beating Gomez 54 percent to 41 percent.

For Republicans, the biggest glimmer of hope lies in Gomez’s support among registered independents, who now outnumber Democrats in the commonwealth and were the key to Scott Brown’s January 2010 win over Martha Coakley. The Globe poll shows Gomez winning these voters 51 percent to 43 percent.

But aside from Brown’s special election victory, recent Massachusetts political history has been filled with Republican candidates who were surprisingly competitive yet ultimately unsuccessful. Though no exit poll data is available, pre-election polling showed that GOP congressional candidates Sean Bielat, Richard Tisei and Jeff Perry all led among independents before losing their races.

Tisei ran against Massachusetts Democratic Rep. John Tierney last year. Bielat’s strongest showing came during a 2010 challenge to Democratic Rep. Barney Frank.

Exit polls show that 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker beat Gov. Deval Patrick 53 percent to 38 percent among independent voters, but it wasn’t enough to unseat the incumbent.

“At this point, you have to expect Republicans to win [independents],” Steve Koczela of MassInc Polling told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “But because of the 3-to-1 Democratic registration advantage over Republicans, a Republican has to not just win [independents] but really run up the score by 30 points.”

Massachusetts classifies voters not affiliated with either party as “unenrolled.”

In his unsuccessful re-election campaign against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Scott Brown won independents by 59 percent to 41 percent. There were no exit polls in the special election two years earlier, but pre-election polling suggests Brown took at least 65 percent of their votes in his first Senate race.

Republicans like to frame this year’s special election as a study in contrasts. Gomez is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Colombia and a former Navy SEAL. The businessman is running for office for the first time. Markey was first elected to Congress in 1976 and is easily tied to Capitol Hill’s current massive unpopularity.

Some have argued that the national party has not done enough to help Gomez. Columnist Salena Vito wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Republicans are oddly not engaged with helping him cross the finish line in a special election that would significantly stun Democrats.”

“This race is clearly winnable,” National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brad Dayspring told TheDC News Foundation in an email. “The Democrats have brought in every star they can to help drag Markey across the line — from POTUS to FLOTUS, from Biden to Gore, and now Bill Clinton —  yet he still only clings to a tiny lead.”

“When all is said and done and Senator Gomez is sworn in by Joe Biden, the record will show that the NRSC approached this race to win it,” Dayspring added. “While it’s happening, there’s no real need to distract attention from Ed Markey’s implosion.”

After Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died in office, Brown’s campaign took area Democrats by surprise. In the fight to keep the Senate seat once held by Secretary of State John Kerry, the party leaders hope to be better prepared this time.

“Anything can happen, because anything has happened before,” Koczela told TheDC News Foundation, adding that it was hard to imagine what kind of turnout would be necessary “to prove all the polling to date wrong.”

The Massachusetts special election will take place June 25.

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