BOSTON With just a week left in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate special election, Democrat Edward Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez broke little new ground in their third and final televised debate Tuesday night.
But with some voters just tuning in to the race for the first time, the candidates made their closing arguments with considerable vigor.
Markey wasted little time launching into his central argument against Gomez: that the man who claims to be a new kind of Republican is pushing the party’s “oldest, stalest” ideas on abortion, guns and Social Security.
And Gomez found, perhaps, the sharpest articulation of his main argument: that Markey, a 37-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives, has been in Washington for too long and will do little to break the partisan gridlock.
“If you go down there, Congressman, nothing changes,” he said.
Analysts, though, said the debate probably did little to change the dynamics of the race with just seven days to go.
“Both candidates had the gloves off, they were very aggressive,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. But “I don’t think this debate will make any difference at all. Markey entered the evening ahead in the polls and he remains ahead, as far as I can tell.”
The most recent independent survey, released by The Boston Globe Sunday, showed Markey ahead by 13 points.
Campaign finance records suggest Markey and his Democratic allies are outspending Gomez and his Republican supporters by a ratio of roughly four to one.
And Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College, said nothing in the national political discussion has proven powerful enough to swamp the campaign and erase the Democrats’ traditional edge in Massachusetts.
In the Bay State’s last Senate special election three years ago, it was discontent with President Obama’s health care reform proposal that helped catapult Republican Scott Brown to a surprise victory.
On Tuesday night, debate moderator R.D. Sahl put Gomez on the defensive with his first question, asking the venture capitalist and former Navy SEAL why voters should trust him when he has revealed so little about his career.
Gomez attempted to pivot, saying the election is about “who the people are going to trust to actually put the people before party and politics.”
But Sahl said he would come back to the question “because frankly you didn’t answer it.” And Markey piled on, attacking Gomez for refusing to release a list of his clients at private equity firm Advent International.
“My vote record is completely transparent,” Markey said. “But with Mr. Gomez, we still don’t know who his clients are.”
Gomez said, later in the debate, that the firm doesn’t have clients, it has investors — including President Barack Obama, whose pension fund from his days as an Illinois legislator invested in Advent.
It was part of a larger attempt to suggest Markey does not understand the private sector — a claim Gomez made again when Markey downplayed the struggles of Telecom City, a development along the Malden River for which the Democrat obtained millions in federal funding.
“I think this is a great example of somebody who’s never had private sector experience, who’s never had a job up here in Massachusetts,” he said. “You know, analyzing an opportunity and not realizing that it wasn’t going to create what you said it was going to create.”
Gomez also worked, as he has throughout the campaign, to cast himself as a moderate Republican — saying his party is wrong on climate change and immigration reform.
And when Sahl asked Gomez if he supports race-based affirmative action, the Republican suggested he does.
“I think everybody should have equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” he said, adding that the “socially” and “demographically” disadvantaged “should have a chance…and if that entails giving them an extra benefit, then yes, I think we should give them that chance.”
Markey said he, too, supports affirmative action.
But if the pair agreed on many issues, the Democrat worked to draw sharp lines where he could.
The candidates, in the middle portion of the debate, asked each other a series of questions. And Markey focused, in one query, on Gomez’s opposition to bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Why, he asked, would a civilian ever need to fire 100 bullets in under two minutes?
Gomez said he respected the Massachusetts ban on assault weapons and pivoted to his support for expanded gun sale background checks — suggesting that, as a Republican, he would have a better shot than Markey at winning GOP support for the legislation and getting it passed.
That promise of change — of a different kind of politics — also found expression in Gomez’s call for term limits.
Markey pointed out, in response to the call, that Gomez had long-serving Republican Sen. John McCain in town recently to campaign on his behalf.
That provoked one of the sharpest exchanges in the debate.
Gomez said he’d told McCain that he should be term limited.
“No, you did not,” said Markey.
“Yes, I did,” said Gomez.
“Are you calling him a liar?,” Sahl asked.
“I’m saying that did not happen,” said Markey.
The final portion of the debate, which took place at WGBH-TV, focused on foreign policy. Markey suggested a cautious approach to Syria and said the U.S. should only impose a no-fly zone with the full support of its allies.
Gomez suggested the U.S. should support the rebel group best positioned to spread democracy.
Both candidates said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest the difficulty of imposing American-style democracy on other countries.
But by the end of the night, some analysts were already looking past the June 25 election.
Ubertaccio, the Stonehill College professor, said Gomez’s strong debate performance would not reshape the fundamental contours of the Senate race.
“But if he’s thinking that he wants a future in Massachusetts politics,” Ubertaccio said, “this was a very strong way to finish up this campaign.”