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Portrait of Gabriel Gomez (R)
Gabriel Gomez (R)
PPP warned us that their new Massachusetts poll would depict a close race, and they weren't kidding. Fresh off Tuesday's primary, here's where things stand:
Ed Markey (D): 44
Gabriel Gomez (R): 40
Undecided: 16
Those aren't numbers any Democrat likes to see, but in a way, they aren't terribly surprising. While safely blue on the presidential level, Massachusetts isn't the Democratic lock it's often assumed to be further down the ballot. And it's not just a matter of Scott Brown, either. The state saw an uninterrupted string of Republican governors from 1991 through 2007; the last Democrat to hold the office before Deval Patrick was none other than Michael Dukakis. John Kerry, too, had his share of less-than-blowout victories, winning his first race in 1984 by a 55-45 spread and then holding off Gov. Bill Weld 52-45 in 1996. And in 1994, a number of polls showed a guy named Mitt Romney neck-and-neck with Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy, though, went on to win that year by 18 points, one of several instances where Bay State Republicans got close (or close-ish) but couldn't seal the deal. Brown, of course, was the huge exception to that, but will businessman Gabriel Gomez be the next Scott Brown, or the next Mitt Romney? That's the number one question on everyone's minds.

Gomez right now is more popular than Rep. Ed Markey, with a 41-27 favorability rating versus 44-41 for the Democrat. And he's keeping things close thanks to his 47-31 lead with independents, as well as the fact that he's drawing 21 percent of Democrats. Some of these may be folks who voted for Rep. Stephen Lynch in the primary who, as Tom Jensen puts it, may be "a little reticent about supporting Markey in the general." (Lynch did immediately endorse Markey, though, so hopefully he won't be reluctant to keep stumping on his behalf.) Jensen adds, though, that Brown held a 64-32 lead with independents in their final 2010 poll, so Gomez still has a lot of ground to make up if he's going to be the next Scott Brown.

In 2012, one aspect of PPP's Massachusetts polling continually stood out: Undecided voters were much more likely to favor Democrats than Republicans. That's why, even though the head-to-head matchups between Brown and Elizabeth Warren often appeared close, Warren had the edge, since those last few up-for-grabs voters had a strong predilection for Team Blue. The big difference between then and now is that Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket, drawing out lots of voters who won't show up for an early summer special election. Indeed, as Jensen notes, this sample is about 5 points more favorable to Mitt Romney than the 2012 election results were.

But even without Obama, Massachusetts is still a blue state. The undecideds in this poll went for Obama by an 18-point margin last fall, include more self-identified liberals than conservatives, and are over 60 percent female. Those are all positives for Markey, and if he can avoid stumbles and self-inflicted wounds, he should be able to win over the bulk of those undecided voters.

It's far from a walkover, though. Gomez may look like a proverbial fresh face, so Markey is going to have to make voters aware of his true ideology—and that a Gomez win would put Mitch McConnell and the GOP one seat closer to regaining control of the Senate. In other words, he's going to have to run a normal, competitive campaign and not simply coast in the belief that "Massachusetts would never elect a Republican senator."

The other question here is whether national Republicans will commit any money to Gomez. After all, this is only one poll, and while the GOP would love to torment Democrats in Massachusetts yet again, the NRSC may conclude that this race is fool's gold, and that they'd rather save their pennies for next fall. Indeed, whoever wins this seat would have to run again in 2014 for the full six-year term, which means Republicans would need to immediately defend this seat again. That wouldn't be an easy task, but it would certainly be easier than trying to wrest the seat from a Sen. Markey, which would probably be almost impossible.)

The biggest difference between now and the 2010 special that elected Scott Brown, though, is the general political environment—the backdrop, if you will. Three years ago, the economy still felt like it was in free fall to many voters, negative headlines about the Affordable Care Act were a daily feature, and conservatives were convinced that electing Brown would derail the ACA and bring the Democratic agenda to a dead halt. None of that is true today. Indeed, Jensen observes that Obama's job approval rating in Massachusetts stands at 53-41 now, versus 44-43 when Brown won.

And there's also the Martha Coakley factor, which is to say that Democrats are damn well determined not to get caught sleeping a second time. That just means, though, that Democrats know they have to work hard to make sure this seat stays blue. Markey may have a small edge, but from now until the special election on June 25, it's nose to the grindstone and absolutely no letting up.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Fri May 03, 2013 at 09:09 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos, Massachusetts Kosmopolitans, and Boston Kossacks.

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