The similarities are striking.
Both are Democrats, just a few years apart, who have both worked as district attorneys, and moved in order to run for Massachusetts’ reconfigured Ninth Congressional District seat.
Both favor abortion rights, support same-sex marriage, back the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and favor restoring a federal ban on assault weapons.
In fact, observers say the biggest difference between Representative Bill Keating and Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter is that the former already serves in Congress while the latter wants his job.
“The major difference between the two is that one is an incumbent and one is not,” said Kenneth Manning, a political scientist at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “And that’s a relatively big thing.”
With a comfortable fund-raising lead and the backing of prominent Democrats including Representative Barney Frank and Senator John Kerry, Keating, 59, is favored to win the Sept. 6 primary, but that has not stopped Sutter, 57, from laying into his opponent, creating one of the state’s most contentious congressional primaries.
Keating, who currently serves as the 10th District representative, was elected to Congress two years ago after defeating Republican Jeff Perry in the race to replace Representative Willliam D. Delahunt.
After the congressional map was shuffled earlier this year, with Keating’s home in Quincy eliminated from the new district, he chose not to run against his House colleague Stephen F. Lynch and instead moved to his summer home in Bourne to qualify for a run in the newly configured South Coast district.
Sutter, who has spent six years as the Bristol County district attorney, also had to move in order run for the Ninth Congressional District seat, relocating from one side of Fall River to a section that falls within the district.
The winner of Thursday’s primary will take on the winner of a youthful GOP showdown between business consultant Christopher Sheldon, 34, of Plymouth and financial services manager Adam Chaprales, 28, of Barnstable.
Despite the ideological similarities between the two Democratic candidates, Keating insists his legislative experience — including more than 20 years as a state lawmaker before his election to Congress — make him best qualified to represent the district, which extends from Marshfield to Provincetown.
“I’ve proven that I can be effective, even in this politically difficult environment,” Keating said.
He stressed that, were he to lose the primary, it would leave the entire southeast part of the state without an incumbent.
“A lot of Democrats are realizing we can’t afford to lose our only remaining congressman that has any experience,” Keating said.
But Keating’s challenger says that length of his political resume is exactly why the incumbent should not be sent back to Washington this fall.
“Which one of us — me, or somebody who has been in politics for 37 years — is more likely to do what Americans want, which is bring change to Congress?” Sutter said in an interview last week.
The challenger said he writes off projections signaling that Keating is a clear favorite and slammed the incumbent for being “out of touch” with the desires of voters.
Sutter said his support base stems largely from his record as an “innovative” and problem-solving district attorney, citing his work to reduce gang violence and reopen cold cases since being elected district attorney.
The one advantage Keating does have, according to his opponent, is his wallet. Keating has raised more than $850,000.
“He’s only got an advantage because of his money,” said Sutter, who has raised about $224,000. He added that the most significant differences between his platform and Keating’s is his stance on campaign financing. While the incumbent has accepted funding from political action committees, Sutter has vowed to turn down PAC money.
“The money is what’s wrong with our elections,” Sutter said. “I think the vast majority of people do not want elections decided by who raises more money .”
Sutter also draws distinctions between Keating and himself on a variety of local issues, criticizing his opponent’s decision not to sign onto a lawsuit filed by Gloucester and New Bedford fishermen against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In mailings and debates, Sutter has lobbed a series of attacks on other issues including Cape Wind, safety at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, and the district’s robust fishing industry.
“I truly have roots in all parts of the region,” Sutter said. “I think I’ve been able to make the case that I’m the only candidate qualified to represent it.”
But some political analysts say Sutter’s attempts to turn the Democratic base against Keating probably won’t succeed.
“Look at the times in Massachusetts history when incumbents have been defeated,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. “None of the factors what you typically find when incumbents are defeated are present in this race. “
Ubertaccio said that in the rare cases when incumbent members of Congress are defeated it is usually due to criminal or corruption charges, a galvanizing national issue, or a redistricting plan that pits incumbents against each other.
Meanwhile, the issues Sutter has attempted to use against Keating — Cape Wind, the Plymouth nuclear plant, etc. — are not divisive enough in the minds of voters to justify ousting Keating from office, Ubertaccio said.
“It’s been [Sutter’s] problem from day one,” Ubertaccio said. “There doesn’t seem to be a single issue or a single set of issues that he can use to divide the party and gain support.”