What the political world thought would be a barn-burning US Senate race that would draw national media attention has fizzled into a slumberous 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 a large number of the state’s political activists who follow and work for candidates. The national media’s focus has waned.
That’s not the way it was supposed to be. In late December, when it became apparent that John F. Kerry would likely vacate his Senate seat to become US Secretary of State, the media and the political class were certain Massachusetts was plunging into yet another high stakes, nationally watched Senate campaign.
A line-up of Democrats with resumés and famous names were taking a hard look at running in the special election. Political insiders were convinced Scott Brown, still popular despite his tough defeat by 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 congressman 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, who -- like Markey -- has little public profile beyond his district.
“It’s not the prize fight we thought we would have,’’ said Thomas J. Whelan, political historian and associate professor of social science at Boston University.
The yawning tone of the race plays well into Markey’s strategy. While mobilizing the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that 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, is trying, but with not much success so far, to kick up a storm to get a larger voter turnout. He is crisscrossing the state, pestering Democratic activists and office holders 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 long-time Democratic activists in Chicopee and vice-chair of the party’s state committee. “Ed Markey is thoughtful and is doing this in a more measured way.’’
“The advantage of a low turnout goes to Markey because the progressives are on guard since the Scott Brown lesson and are ready to turnout,’’ said Maurice T. Cunningham, professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Boston, referring to the 2010 special election that Brown won. “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, the Cohasset businessman and former Navy SEAL, has financial resources, but his political inexperience is creating problems for him on the campaign trail. Michael Sullivan, the 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 off-beat initiative, has yet to display them in the campaign.
“We have this whole lack of gravitas,’’ Whelan 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.’’
In regular election years candidates have months to organize their operations, raise funds, get up to speed on issues, and hone their campaign skills. Regular state primaries are held in September, giving candidates a long lead-way to launch a campaign. Special elections, a new electoral process to fill a Senate that emerged in the last decade, come suddenly and are in a far more compressed time-period, creating an intense campaign that prioritizes momentum and built-in organizations.
Adding to the yawning appearance of the race is Governor Deval L. Patrick’s own campaign to force the Legislature to back his plan to raise taxes for investment in transportation and education.
“It’s not the prizefight we thought we would have.”THOMAS J. WHELAN, associate professor of social science at Boston University
“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 less financial resources, will be following in the coming weeks - a blitz that will put the race front and center for voters.The media will also increasingly focus on the campaign as the primary approaches. Well-funded outside intersect groups and super-PACs will likely flood the airwaves.
In addition, the battle for the June 25 general election will come down to two well-funded candidates, providing a more clear and easier picture for voters to engage.
But whether they are ready to is another matter. Some say the Massachusetts electorate is exhausted by steady barrage of high-intensity campaigns over the last several years, going back to Brown’s stunning victory in the 2010 race to fill the Senate seat vacated by 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,’’ Rob Gray, a veteran Republican consultant.
Brown’s stunning and late decision to back off running in the current special election delivered the biggest blow to providing some sizzle to the race. He would have brought star qualities to the campaign. With Democrats, still smarting from his upset victory in 2010, energized to drive a final stake into his political heart, his candidacy would have almost certainly kicked up a political storm and drawn strong interest from the national media.
“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.’’
Kozikowsk cites the tough winter weather as a factor, as political activists who are normally excited about a good race struggle through tough winter doldrums that are seeping 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, shovelling out.’’Frank Phillips can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.