Massachusetts Democrats are working to prop up what some have called a lackluster campaign by US Representative Edward J. Markey with a ferocious ground game that operatives expect will overwhelm Republican nominee Gabriel E. Gomez’s insurgency.
Democratic political operatives say the party’s ground game, honed by a steady parade of statewide elections and galvanized by the memory of a special election loss in 2010, will elevate a candidacy that has been conducted largely out of the public eye.
The specter of 2010, when then-state Senator Scott P. Brown stunned Attorney General Martha Coakley, stirs bile in the state’s heavily Democratic political establishment. That year, a full 107,000 of the state’s most devoted Democratic voters did not go to the polls for a special Senate election that Brown won by more than 109,000 votes.
“To screw up a US Senate special election isn’t a theory for us,” state Democratic Party chairman John Walsh said. “We’ve done it, so nobody is taking anything for granted.”
Markey has, to date, run a reserved campaign notably light on a public schedule, despite Gomez’s recent spate of attacks. On Thursday, the Cook Political Report, an electoral handicapping publication, shifted the race from “lean Democrat” to “toss up.”
Markey aides say much of the candidate’s time has been spent in private events, shoring up support from key interest groups.
But a Democratic political machine that has been in power since 2006, when Governor Deval Patrick first won election, has been laboring strenuously to fire up ground troops and revive the enthusiasm that has the party on a winning streak.
Markey, who has not exhibited the charisma that helped previous Democratic victors draw voters to the polls, is poised to be the ultimate beneficiary of the party’s thoroughly oiled voter-turnout apparatus.
Carl Nilsson, Markey’s field director, said the campaign has been structured “very much on the tops of the shoulders of Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama,” borrowing get-out-the-vote tactics and staff.
Nilsson, who worked for both Warren and Obama as well as Governor Deval Patrick, said the Markey campaign has nearly 11,000 active volunteers, including almost 700 people in “leadership roles.” The campaign modeled a fellowship program after the Obama campaign’s that, Nilsson said, has produced 246 seasoned campaign workers, 143 of whom are still with the campaign.
In all, as of Thursday, Nilsson said, volunteers had worked 97,986 hours and attempted to contact 1,016,000 people through door-knocking or phone calls. During this weekend, Nilsson said, the campaign planned to knock on 50,000 doors.
“I see very much the same methodology, the same spirit, the same commitment that I saw when I did the get-out-the-vote for the governor that I did in 2010, that I did working with Elizabeth Warren in 2012, that I’ve seen working for the president for the last two-and-a-half years,” Nilsson said. “We just basically take all the lessons from the last campaigns, and we apply it.”
Republicans have argued that Markey is waging a laissez-faire campaign campaign that does not match Gomez’s frequent public events. Gomez campaign officials say that they will capitalize on their candidate’s outsider appeal by outworking the Democrats.
“Since winning the primary we have had over 3,500 new volunteer sign-ups and are putting that energy to good use,” Gomez campaign spokesman Will Ritter said in an e-mail. “In less than a month the Gomez campaign has made tens of thousands of volunteer recruitment and ID calls, distributed 4,000 yard signs, have had dozens of volunteers knocking on doors and handing out literature in every county.
“We’re in the process of opening up staffed field offices across state. We have a field organization that is more than robust enough to take us to victory, but the most important advantage our campaign has is Gabriel Gomez.”
Markey’s often-stilted manner on the stump, say Democratic operatives, has made it politically advantageous to focus on his policy stances rather than relying on his interpersonal skills. On gun control, abortion rights, and other policy matters, party insiders are confident that Markey distinguishes himself from Gomez in the eyes of a special-election voter base that will not focus on the 37-year congressman’s style on the campaign trail.
At a May 24 rally in Dorchester designed to tout Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s support, Markey pulled out one of his favorite tricks on the stump: an occasionally awkward play on words. “His name may be Tom Meni-NO, but he says ‘yes’ to anything that makes Boston a great city,” Markey said.
After the event, Menino said he could not explain the relative slimness of Markey’s public schedule, and that he had encouraged the Malden Democrat to campaign more aggressively.
One senior Democratic operative said Markey’s message has been tailored to the relatively narrow slice of the electorate expected to turn out when he and Gomez square off on June 25.
“He’s speaking to a very narrow group of people who are going to vote no matter what,” the operative said, pointing to Markey’s rhetoric on gun control, moneyed conservative interests, and tax policy. “And they’re going to vote, and this is what motivates them. And it worked in the primary. This is not a regular cycle.”
The Democratic machine has paid recent dividends. Last year, after many Democratic strategists left US Representative John Tierney for dead in his race against former state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, the Salem Democrat managed a narrow victory, benefiting from the Warren and Obama turnout operations.
The state GOP has no such campaign infrastructure. Typically, Bay State Republicans rely on a centrist message and an against-the-machine narrative that Gomez has, at times, seemed poised to inherit.
Gomez has not benefited from the same national trends that boosted Brown. While Brown was able to run against Obama’s health care bill, Gomez has yet to reap momentum from the various controversies engulfing Washington, including the administration’s response to the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, the Department of Justice monitoring of reporters, and the Internal Revenue Service’s pursuit of conservative groups.
Still, Markey has been unable to distance himself from the largely untested Gomez, a former Navy SEAL and private equity investor.
Walsh, a veteran Democratic organizer, was dismissive of Gomez’s campaign strategy, calling it a “drop in and interrupt people’s breakfasts” approach of downplayed public events, unlike Markey’s system of meeting with likely supporters.
Gomez’s plan, Walsh said, does not allow for the construction of a voter network like the one Democrats have been wiring. While Markey last week collected more than $700,000 from a fund-raiser with First Lady Michelle Obama, according to his campaign, Gomez is hobbled by the unpopularity of many national Republicans, whose appearances in Massachusetts might harm rather than help his cause.
“I’m waiting for Rudy Giuliani to come in and have his cannoli at Mike’s Pastry,” Walsh said, referring to the former New York City mayor’s appearances in the North End on behalf of GOP candidates.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.