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Markey Faces The Specter Of The Coakley Campaign

Rep. Edward Markey (Steven Senne/AP)

Rep. Edward Markey (Steven Senne/AP)

BOSTON — Two weeks ago, The Boston Globe ran a front-page story on U.S. Rep. Edward Markey’s light campaign schedule in his race for the U.S. Senate.

And last week, the newspaper followed with a piece on Markey’s missed votes in the House of Representatives during the campaign.

Hanging over the stories — indeed, explicitly mentioned in both: the specter of Martha Coakley.

Coakley was the last Democrat to run in a special election for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, losing in spectacular fashion to Republican Scott Brown in 2010.

And the thrust of the Coakley critique sounds a bit like the narrative building up around Markey now: She rested on her laurels, critics said, and didn’t spend enough time pressing the flesh with voters.

But does the analogy hold up?

Yes and no, say independent analysts and political operatives from both parties.

And whether it’s more yes or no, they say, could determine the outcome of Markey’s June 25 tilt with Republican Gabriel Gomez.

The Lens

Brown’s upset of Coakley in the 2010 special election is something like the defining event of modern Bay State politics.

The election — invigorating for Republicans, traumatic for Democrats — is now the starting point for any discussion about a competitive statewide or congressional contest in Massachusetts.

And the current race provides for a particularly attractive comparison: Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, has some of Brown’s fresh-faced appeal; Markey, like Coakley before him, is an establishment Democrat, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

Independent observers tell WBUR they do see a bit of Coakley in Markey. They are almost unanimous, for instance, in criticizing the representative for his light schedule of public campaign events.

Markey’s camp has downplayed the critique, arguing that the candidate is spending significant time raising money, preparing for debates and meeting in private with unions and other constituencies that will be central to the success of a low turnout campaign.

John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, says Markey’s closed-door events with organized labor and environmentalists are “at least as effective” as Gomez’s quick stops at diners and gas stations.

But analysts say the Democratic nominee should spend more time on the hustings — if only to stave off the Coakley comparisons.

“Markey’s campaign is inexplicable,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “He has plenty of friendly audiences to talk to.”

The light schedule, he adds, “plays into the Gomez narrative of, ‘this guy’s been around Washington forever, he’s old, he’s tired.’ ”

But Berry says that argument is probably not enough to secure a victory for Gomez.

And there is some danger, analysts add, in conflating a light public schedule with a less-than-vigorous campaign.

Democrats, who have built a strong ground game in the wake of the Brown-Coakley race, are knocking on thousands of doors each weekend — working to improve on the anemic turnout in the Democratic primary.

And the Markey camp is waging an aggressive effort to paint Gomez as a conservative out of the Massachusetts mainstream on gun control, taxes and abortion.

But to the extent that Markey is running a frontrunner’s campaign — keeping a low profile, working to drive the Democratic base to the polls — it may not be the mistake it’s made out to be, argues Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

“If you were out there careening around the state, like he’s 30 points behind — everyone says that’s what you should do, but that’s not from a practical political standpoint the smart thing to do,” says Ferson, who worked for Markey’s Democratic primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch. “This is a race where very few people are paying attention. The people who will go to the polls in a race where nobody is paying attention are traditional Democrats. And he will win. And any smart strategy has you winning in the end.”

Smart or unnecessarily risky, analysts say, a frontrunner strategy is more likely to succeed in the current political environment than it was three years ago.

“The key ingredient from the 2010 race that is missing now is the mood of the electorate,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.

Back then, Brown grabbed hold of deep concern about the lingering recession and President Obama’s health care reform push. “You had a lot of anger at the president,” Ubertaccio says, “you had a lot of unease, Democratic demoralization…That just doesn’t exist at the moment.”

Indeed, Obama’s approval ratings in Massachusetts have improved significantly in the last three years. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is more popular, too. And U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, both Democrats, are riding high.

Little wonder that Markey has trotted out endorsements from Menino and the president in recent days; First Lady Michelle Obama was in town Wednesday for a fundraiser.

The Opportunity

Republican strategist Paul Moore allows that the energy of 2010 is not evident today. But he argues that there is a chance to build something like it.

Moore, who served as campaign manager for Gomez’s GOP primary opponent Michael Sullivan, points to a string of scandals in Washington in recent weeks — including the controversy surrounding the IRS, which singled out conservative political groups for scrutiny.

The IRS issue, he suggests, has the potential to awaken some of the same concerns about government overreach that surfaced with Obamacare. But the GOP nominee, Moore argues, is not doing enough to exploit it.

“I don’t know whether or not Gomez is doing enough to show leadership and say, ‘look, this is the sort of thing that…I am running against and that I’ll be against if I’m senator,’ ” he says.

Being likable isn’t enough for a GOP candidate in the Northeast, Moore says. A Republican needs to take a clear, principled stand on a defining issue or two — Brown on Obamacare, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on union contracts — to succeed.

It is a version of a broader critique of the Gomez campaign — that it is not filling whatever vacuum Markey has left on the campaign trail with a coherent, focused message.

Lenny Alcivar, a Gomez adviser, stands by an approach that has jumped from one message to the next in recent weeks: pushing for term limits and balanced budgets, hitting Markey on national security issues, attacking the incumbent for his votes to increase taxes.

Taken in toto, Alcivar says, they paint a picture of a new kind of bipartisan leader taking on an old, out-of-touch incumbent who will “put party and extreme partisanship before the needs of taxpayers.”

Whether that message will catch on is yet to be seen. But if it doesn’t, Gomez may find some value in calling out Markey for the approach that helped sink Coakley three years ago — in making the campaign, itself, an issue.

Alcivar, in an interview with WBUR, had a line at the ready: “Congressman Markey believes that he is entitled to this Senate seat, and we have a message for Congressman Markey: you have to earn the respect of voters.”

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