In a district with an unusually sizable Republican presence, Thomas F. Keyes is hoping that a sharp conservative message and an aggressive campaign against state Senate president Therese Murray will produce one of the biggest upsets in Massachusetts political history.
Murray has held the seat for the Plymouth and Barnstable District for the past 20 years and has been Senate president since 2007. The Plymouth Democrat is campaigning on a record of delivering for the district, while promoting statewide initiatives that have streamlined government and controlled the cost of health care and energy.
In modern Massachusetts history, a sitting Senate president or House speaker has never been defeated for reelection by the voters, although leaders of the two chambers have left office amid scandals or State House revolts.
Although Senate presidents tend to come from safe districts, the Plymouth and Barnstable District is one of the most Republican in the state. Scott Brown won the area by a wide margin in the 2010 race for US Senate, and John McCain came close to Barack Obama there in 2008.
The district also is split fairly evenly between Cape Cod and towns to the north of the Cape Cod Canal, giving a candidate from Cape Cod, such as Keyes, a geographic power base. The towns in the district are Sandwich, Bourne, Falmouth, Plymouth, Pembroke, and Kingston.
Keyes, a business consultant and former Sandwich selectman, came within 3,600 votes, or four percentage points, of Murray in the 2010 election. Shortly after that loss, he set his sites on the Nov. 6, 2012, election and launched a new campaign for the seat.
Since she unseated Senator Edward Kirby of Whitman, a Republican, in 1992, Murray has dispatched a series of challengers fairly easily. But Michael Kryzanek, a political scientist at Bridgewater State University, said Murray has campaigned more actively this year than she did in 2010.
The Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown could boost turnout in the Keyes-Murray contest.
“Compared to some of the opponents she has had in the past, Mr. Keyes is a formidable challenger,” Kryzanek said. “He is certainly not a candidate who can be ignored.”
In her opening statement at a Plymouth Area League of Women Voters debate last week in Kingston, Murray said, “During my time on Beacon Hill I have been a very strong voice for my constituents and actually every member of the Commonwealth. Because I can work across the aisle and with the House and with the administration, we have been able to accomplish major pieces of legislation this year that positively affect everyone in the Commonwealth.”
A former Senate Ways and Means Committee chair, Murray has been a key player on Beacon Hill in health care reform, energy regulation, and transportation reorganization. She is the only woman to hold the top office in either chamber of the Massachusetts Legislature.
Keyes, who consults with businesses on government compliance issues, has promoted his status as a small-business owner and community leader. He served two terms on the Sandwich Board of Selectmen and three terms on the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates. He has campaigned on a platform of helping small businesses by easing regulations and cutting taxes.
“We need to change course,” Keyes said at the Kingston debate. “We need to understand that it is business that serves this economy, and we’re failing.”
In recent weeks, the campaigns have turned negative. Murray has hit Keyes on his failure to list on financial-disclosure forms a mortgage on his Sandwich home that he received from an individual who has supported him politically. Keyes said he has nothing to hide and blamed the omission on a computer glitch.
Keyes has noted that the Senate president was mentioned in an official report on the state probation scandal as having recommended unqualified individuals for probation jobs. Murray has denied wrongdoing.
Both candidates have been campaigning hard throughout the summer and fall. Keyes said he has knocked on 8,000 doors. Murray said she has been working to get her message out and has launched a social media campaign that includes a Facebook page, web page, and Twitter feed.
Murray has outpaced Keyes in fund-raising. As of Aug. 19, she had just over $200,000 in her campaign treasury, while Keyes had $28,829, according to filings with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. He had spent $45,417 during the year, while she had spent $198,102.
Keyes said he is undaunted by Murray’s financial lead, noting that he came close two years ago with even fewer resources.
According to Kryzanek, the presidential election and the US Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren could boost turnout. But a strong showing by a national or statewide candidate may not yield much benefit for a counterpart in the state Senate race, according to Kryzanek.
“The days of people pulling the lever for one party are gone,” he said. “Voters are more selective today.”
Party officials from the Senate district are optimistic about their candidates’ chances.
“Tom Keyes is running a really strong campaign in the district,” said Eric Dykeman, chairman of the Plymouth Republican Town Committee. “His message has resonated.”
Jack LaLond, Democratic state committeeman from Plymouth, said, “Senator Murray has been working hard for this district for 20 years. I think folks in the district will support her.”