What the political world thought would be a barn-burning US Senate race that would draw national media attention has fizzled into a slumbrous event that has yet to stir the sort of passions and interest that marked recent campaigns.
So far, the primary election battle that will be decided in just five weeks has barely made a blip on the electorate’s radar screen. The race has failed to spark interest among political activists who follow and work for candidates. The attention of the national media has waned.
That is not the way it was supposed to be. In late December, when it became apparent that John F. Kerry would probably vacate his Senate seat to become US secretary of state, those who work in the politics and the news business were certain that Massachusetts was plunging into yet another high-stakes, nationally watched Senate campaign.
A lineup of Democrats with resumes and famous names were taking a hard look at running in the special election. Political insiders were convinced that Scott Brown, still popular despite his bruising loss to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November, would carry the Republican banner, setting up a rip-roaring special election.
But all that changed. Brown dropped out, leaving three little-known Republicans to fight for the GOP nomination in the April 30 primary. National Democrats quickly coalesced around veteran US Representative Edward J. Markey, which discouraged others from venturing into the race. In the end, the only other contestant to step forward on the Democratic side was US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a centrist Democrat who, like Markey, has little public profile beyond his district.
“It’s not the prizefight we thought we would have,’’ said Thomas Whalen, political historian and associate professor of social sciences at Boston University.
The yawning tone of the race could help Markey, who has been focusing on mobilizing his supporters within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which generally dominates primary elections. The Malden Democrat, who has registered a comfortable lead in public opinion polls, is hoping to allow the campaign to move quietly to the primary.
Lynch, a feisty underdog from South Boston, is trying, without much success so far, to kick up a storm to get a larger voter turnout. He is crisscrossing the state, pestering Democratic activists and officeholders for support, and trying to exude an appearance of momentum.
“Lynch is running like his hair is on fire, and he has a great personal story to tell,’’ said Debra Kozikowski, a longtime Democratic activist in Chicopee and vice chairwoman of the party’s state committee. “Ed Markey is thoughtful and is doing this in a more measured way.’’
Maurice Cunningham, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said low turnout would work to Markey’s advantage, given his strong base of support within the party.
“The progressives are on guard since the Scott Brown lesson and are ready to turn out,’’ Cunningham said. “You would have to see a healthy and enthusiastic surge out of labor for Lynch to have a chance.”
Meanwhile, the Republican field is struggling to get its act together. Gabriel Gomez, a Cohasset businessman and former Navy SEAL, has financial resources, but his political inexperience has been evident at times on the campaign trail. Michael Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor who once served in the Legislature, has yet to display a dynamic profile despite predictions he would be the front-runner. State Representative Daniel B. Winslow, known for gaining attention for his imaginative and sometimes offbeat initiatives, has yet to display this talent in the campaign.
“We have this whole lack of gravitas,’’ Whalen, the BU professor, said of the candidate field. “They don’t invoke the vision of a Ted Kennedy or Henry Cabot Lodge. They are standard, by-the-book party candidates, unlike the Brown-Warren race, which put the whole world on edge.’’
The compressed election schedule is also working against the candidates.
In regular election years, candidates have months to organize their operations, raise funds, get up to speed on issues, and hone their campaign skills before a September primary. Special elections, a relatively new process in Massachusetts for filling Senate vacancies, come suddenly and play out over a far shorter period, creating an intense campaign that prioritizes momentum and built-in organizations.
Also diverting attention from the race is Governor Deval Patrick’s campaign to urge the Legislature to back his plan to raise taxes for investment in transportation and education.
“The Senate race suffers from the Patrick proposal that is dominating the political story of the season,’’ said Lou DiNatale, a veteran Democratic analyst. “That’s taking up all the oxygen in the political world.”
There is still time for the race to catch fire. The two Democrats have already launched television ads. Republicans, with fewer financial resources, will be following in the coming weeks, a blitz that will put the race front and center for voters. The news media will also focus on the campaign as the primary approaches. Outside interest groups and super PACs will probably flood the airwaves.
In the end, the battle for the June 25 general election will come down to two well-funded candidates, offering voters a better chance to engage.
Whether they are ready to engage is another matter. Some say the electorate is exhausted by the barrage of high-intensity campaigns over the past several years, going back to Brown’s victory in the 2010 race to fill the Senate seat left vacant after Edward M. Kennedy’s death.
“Voters were burned out by the presidential race and the Brown-Warren race, and they are not looking forward to another political campaign at an odd time of year that they are not used to,’’ said Rob Gray, a veteran Republican consultant.
Brown’s decision to take a pass was most responsible for draining the sizzle from this race. He would have brought star qualities to the campaign. With Democrats, still smarting from his victory in 2010, energized to drive a final stake into his political career, his candidacy would have almost certainly kicked up a political storm.
“It originally was looking like a Kentucky Derby, but it has turned out to be a Cub Scout soap box derby,’’ Gray said. “The big-name candidates sat out, meaning the big money and media attention are sitting out, as well.’’
Kozikowski cites tough weather as a factor, as activists struggle through winter doldrums that seep into spring.
“It’s really quiet,’’ she said. “People are tired. It’s a special election. Winter hit us again this week. All but the most hard-core political activists are just living their lives, shoveling out.’’