BOSTON — When the Democratic and Republican primaries for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat came to a close last week, talk inevitably shifted to which nominee can pull in enough independent voters to win the general election.
It is a particularly pressing concern for GOP nominee Gabriel Gomez, running in a deep blue state.
But if Gomez is to upset his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, he can’t just count on independents. He will have to mobilize the Republican base, too — however modest in size.
And that task suddenly looks much different than it did even a month ago.
Back then, many observers imagined a GOP base populated by Tea Party sympathizers. And the conventional wisdom had that base catapulting Michael Sullivan — a pro-life former U.S. attorney — to victory in the Republican primary.
Even as Gomez appeared to surge toward the end, there was some skepticism about whether the momentum was real.
Jerold Duquette, a political science professor at Central Connecticut State University who has written extensively about Massachusetts politics, was among those who gave Sullivan a leg up in the primary.
But Gomez’s victory over Sullivan and a third GOP candidate, state Rep. Dan Winslow, requires a fundamental rethink of what constitutes the Republican base in this state, he said.
“In the Massachusetts Republican Party, [the] Tea Party is a smaller group and obviously not as motivated to turn out,” Duquette said. “The question now is, will they even matter to Gomez?”
Indeed, if the state’s GOP base is as moderate as it appears, that’s good news for Gomez. The candidate — focused on a middle-of-the road message in the run up to the June 25 general election — may not have to worry about compromising that message with red meat for the diehards.
But whatever the ideological composition of the GOP base, there’s still the question of mobilization: How to stir a party that didn’t seem much interested in the primary?
Turnout for the Republican and Democratic primaries combined was just 17 percent.
And while the GOP turnout of 189,000 was 14 percent higher than the Republican primary in the Senate special election of 2009 and 2010, the gain may not be as substantial as it sounds.
The December 2009 primary wasn’t much of a draw, after all — GOP nominee Scott Brown had just token opposition.
And ideally, the Republican Party would have wrung more from the Gomez-Sullivan-Winslow tilt: It was the first competitive, statewide GOP primary since 1998, when acting Gov. Paul Cellucci staved off a challenge from Treasurer Joe Malone.
Winslow, for one, was counting on a more energized base this spring — investing heavily in phone banking and other tools to excite Republican voters and get them to the polls.
It was a mistake, he said: “About a month into it, we realized that people were simply not engaging at all.”
After one lengthy, Election Day conversation with a would-be voter, Winslow recalled, the man couldn’t even get the candidate’s name right: “Well, I really like the way you think,” he said, “you’ve definitely got my vote, Dave.”
Sullivan’s campaign manager, Paul Moore, saw a similar disengagement, which he attributed in part to the dispiriting setbacks Republicans endured in Massachusetts and across the country last fall.
Sen. Brown, a popular moderate, lost. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, taking on an incumbent in a down economy, fell short too. “You really have to go back and see November 2012 as a seminal event in Republican psychology,” Moore said.
That blow, he said, combined with election fatigue in a state that’s voted to fill the same U.S. Senate seat three times in four years, made it tough to get Republicans — and voters who lean Republican — to the polls.
“I think that Gomez will face the same challenge that we all did in the primary, which was a depressed Republican turnout,” Moore said.
“Sowing hope,” he said, “is job No. 1 for Gabriel Gomez.”
Moore made his comments Friday morning, just before Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a survey showing Gomez nipping at Markey’s heels — the Democrat leading just 44 to 40 percent.
More surveys like that could buoy conservative spirits. And Will Ritter, a spokesman for the Gomez campaign, said the GOP nominee was generating excitement even before the PPP survey.
The campaign has raised $200,000 online since the April 30 primary, he said, and signed up 1,800 new volunteers — bringing the total to 4,000.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, added that the state GOP has picked up its own ground game of late; it had five statewide offices during the 2010 election cycle, he said, and 35 last year.
The state party is coordinating the general election effort with Gomez staff now.
And Gomez supporters hope the media splash surrounding his upset primary victory will also draw the sort of national money that can fund a robust, independently run voter turnout operation.
But conservatives, whatever they mount, will be going up against a powerful Democratic get-out-the-vote machine built over two Deval Patrick gubernatorial campaigns, a pair of Barack Obama presidential contests and Elizabeth Warren’s Senate run.
Markey can also count on several outside groups, with experience in Massachusetts politics, to canvass on his behalf.
Not all of the organizations that knocked on doors and called voters for Markey during the Democratic primary have committed to the general election tilt; Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said the group’s national staff is still deliberating.
But at least two important players said they’ll back Markey again in the coming weeks. Harris Gruman, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Massachusetts State Council, confirmed that SEIU will be engaged.
And Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said the environmental group will jump into the general election fight. “When we endorsed Markey in January,” he said, “we made clear that this was the most important race this year.”
With all the natural advantages that accrue to Democrats in Massachusetts, political science professor Duquette argued it will take nothing less than a major shift in the national mood to encourage conservative turnout — and depress the liberal vote — sufficient to vault Gomez into office
It will take something, Duquette suggested, like the popular opposition to Obamacare that helped put Brown in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
So far, there’s no sign of a comparable anti-Democrat groundswell across the country or in Massachusetts. Fifty-three percent of respondents to the PPP poll released Friday said they approve of President Obama’s job performance, compared to 41 percent who disapprove.
The final PPP poll before Brown’s upset victory in 2010 showed just 44 percent approving of the president and 43 percent disapproving.