WBUR

Analysis: Senate Debate Injects New Energy Into Race, But May Not Shift It

BOSTON — The special election to replace former U.S. Sen. John Kerry has been a rather lackluster affair.

And in their first of three televised debates Wednesday night, the men who would succeed him — U.S. Rep. Edward Markey and his Republican opponent Gabriel Gomez — did their best to change that dynamic.

Republican Gabriel Gomez and Democrat Ed Markey shook hands before their first debate in the race for U.S. Senate. (Shoshana Salzberg for WBUR)

Republican Gabriel Gomez and Democrat Ed Markey shook hands before their first debate in the race for U.S. Senate. (Shoshana Salzberg for WBUR)

Gomez, an underdog in a deep blue state, took an aggressive tack from the opening moments. And Markey, who’s faced criticism for a light campaign schedule and less-than-inspiring campaign, mounted a feisty defense of his record and pushed to tie his opponent to a national GOP unpopular in Massachusetts.

But if the candidates injected a new energy into the race, analysts said, they probably did not alter its trajectory in any fundamental way.

“Nobody clearly dominated the other,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.

The status quo, at the moment, favors Markey, who held a 52-40 lead on Gomez in the most recent independent poll in the race.

But Gomez’s task Wednesday night was not to elicit some game-changing moment, Ubertaccio argued. Those rarely come out of debates.

“For example, when [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney dominated [President] Obama in the first presidential debate [last year], the next day people were breathless, thinking the race had changed,” he said. “And it hadn’t changed.”

As the lesser-known candidate, the political scientist said, Gomez’s task was to present himself as a credible alternative to the long-serving Markey — giving voters a reason to take another look at the GOP nominee before they cast ballots on June 25.

There, Gomez fared reasonably well. He was relatively fluid on the issues: raising concerns about the costs Obamacare will impose on small business, for instance, and making a straightforward argument for tax cuts.

“Less taxes equal more jobs,” he said, at one point.

But the Republican did stumble from time to time. In an otherwise cogent discussion of the conflict in Syria — Gomez suggested the Obama administration has not done enough to oust President Bashar al-Assad — he said “we have a great opportunity here to make sure we align ourselves with the right terrorist group” and defeat the regime.

He quickly corrected himself and said the U.S. needs to back the “right rebel group,” ensuring that whoever takes over Syria promotes peace and democracy in the Middle East.

But the gaffe, if it gets enough play in the press, could undermine an otherwise solid bid for credibility, Ubertaccio said.

Markey, for his part, did his best to align Gomez with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other unpopular national GOP figures.

“You’re going to hear a lot from Mr. Gomez about how he’s a new kind of Republican,” he said at the start of the debate sponsored by WBZ-TV and The Boston Globe. “But you’re going to hear the same, old, stale Republican ideas.”

Markey zeroed in on Gomez’s opposition to bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. He attacked the GOP candidate for opposing tax hikes on the wealthy. He hit his opponent for weighing cuts in Social Security benefits.

In one lengthy exchange, Markey said he would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision legalizing abortion. Gomez, who calls himself personally pro-life but pledges not to be an activist on the issue in Washington, would make no such pledge.

And when Gomez repeated a line he’s offered up several times on the campaign trail — claiming that Markey hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation in the last 20 years — the Democrat was incredulous.

“Mr. Gomez, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said, ticking off a list of several bills he’d authored in recent years that became law: one creating a new, national effort to combat Alzheimer’s disease, another designed to improve wireless Internet access for the deaf and blind and a third promoting elder home care.

None of the bills went directly to the president’s desk. But as WBUR reported last month in a fact check of Gomez’s claim, several of the measures Markey offered over the last two decades were incorporated into larger bills that became law. In other cases, nearly identical Senate legislation won the president’s signature.

If the debate focused largely on issues, Gomez worked to shift it from time to time to something broader.

The Republican, hitting on a theme he’s emphasized throughout the campaign, cast himself as an exemplar of bipartisanship taking on a tired political insider who needs to go.

At the start of the debate, after thanking the debate’s sponsors and the viewing audience, he said: “Congressman Markey, after 37 years in D.C., welcome back to Boston.”

Gomez also tried to paint himself as the anti-politician, saying he would speak “from the heart.”

Paul Moore, who served as campaign manager for Gomez’s Republican primary opponent Michael Sullivan, has argued that Gomez needs to present himself as more than a likable character if he’s to pull off the upset.

The GOP nominee, he’s said, needs to distinguish himself on a couple of reforms popular with the electorate.

Moore said Gomez moved in that direction Wednesday night, making a strong argument for term limits and talking about small business owners’ concerns about the costs imposed by Obamacare.

The GOP nominee also singled out an element of Obamacare — a tax on medical devices — that could prove particularly burdensome for Massachusetts. Both candidates oppose the tax, but Gomez argues Markey hasn’t done enough to overturn it.

The critique, Moore noted, came amid a growing press narrative around the unexpected costs of the president’s health care law. But that narrative will have to grow stronger, he said, if Gomez’s message is to move the electorate in a significant way.

It’s an argument that points to the role of the debate in any insurgent campaign: it may not shift the race in a fundamental way, but if played right, it can help to encourage a broader shift.

The question for Gomez: will that broader shift come?

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