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TOM KEANE

A Senate campaign that never caught fire

Gabriel Gomez and Edward Markey at the June 5 debate.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

Gabriel Gomez and Edward Markey at the June 5 debate.

IF POLITICS is supposed to be the Bay State’s blood sport, today’s election suggests water now runs in our veins. Or perhaps our blood sport is now just sports — as in the Bruins finals, Red Sox travails, or discussions about who next coaches the Celtics. Either way, Markey versus Gomez has proved a tepid contest.

There are a host of theories why. The Marathon bombings distracted us. Special elections are confusing. The weather has been weird. Politics itself has lost its luster. But most of the blame should go to the candidates themselves. Ed Markey never wanted the race to catch fire. And Gomez didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to light the match anyway.

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Markey was a colorless candidate, foisted upon the electorate by the national Democratic Party. In office for 36 years and counting, there was little new and exciting about the guy. He was largely invisible, proffering few innovative ideas and relying on standard Democratic bromides. He told us a lot he would “fight” — for Social Security, Medicare, jobs — a seemingly brave but actually silly promise. A long-termer like Markey knows that, in office, fights in politics rarely yield useful results. He loved the word “progressive” too: “passionate progressive,” “progressive senator,” “progressive solutions,” “progressive leader” (all of this from just the first four paragraphs on his website’s homepage!). None of this was designed to engage us, which was the point of this under-the-radar campaign. A Democrat in a Democratic state can well just coast to victory and, with polls showing Markey considerably ahead, he likely will.

For his part, Gomez had surface appeal but, as the onion was peeled back, there was little else revealed. A political consultant lighting on Gomez’s resume — Navy SEAL, Latino, successful businessman, handsome — would have thought him a dream. But there were nagging problems. During the Republican primary, a contretemps ensued over a letter Gomez had sent to Governor Deval Patrick asking to be appointed to the Senate seat and vowing to support President Obama’s agenda on immigration and gun control. That letter called into question his GOP bona fides and, in the general campaign, also seemed to signal a worry: No one was sure what Gomez was about. On top of that, Gomez seemed remarkably unschooled in public policy, perhaps intentionally so. The attacks on Markey’s longevity and Gomez’s argument that “we need citizen legislators, not career politicians” in some measure showed a lack of respect for the complexity and seriousness of the job he was seeking.

The comparisons to Scott Brown were endless. Gabriel Gomez is no Scott Brown, runs the argument, but to be frank, Scott Brown was no Scott Brown either (a point proved last year when Elizabeth Warren handily beat him). The electrifying January 2010 election Brown won was less about trucks and barn jackets than it was about a wave of voter unhappiness with President Obama, Washington gridlock, and impending national health care legislation. Brown caught that wave and rode it to victory.

It’s conceivable that this election could have been about another source of voter discontent — the series of scandals (political manipulation by the IRS, privacy and the NSA, criminal investigations of reporters) that speak to a worrying abuse of government power. But while Gomez adopted some of the outward symbols Brown used to convey his image as an everyman (such as the bomber jacket), he never took the next step of seizing on an issue that would give voters a reason to care. He wanly said he’d be a “new kind of Republican,” presumably code to mean he wouldn’t toe the national GOP line, but he never laid out a coherent philosophy to tell us what, exactly, his new line was.

In retrospect, the right candidate for this election might well have been Dan Winslow, the erudite former judge and state rep who came in last in the GOP primary. Steeped in public policy and creative to boot, Winslow would have been provocative, forcing voters to think and pushing Markey hard enough to take him out of his comfort zone. But that didn’t happen, and so another dull race is over and we’re on to the next: the battle to succeed Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Hope springs eternal.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com
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