BRAINTREE — Conservative-leaning towns like this one swept Scott Brown to victory in 2010 as his insurgent candidacy became the hot topic in pizza parlors and delis. But walk into Nanci’s Barber Shop this week, and the chatter is not about the current Senate candidates, or even about politics at all.
“You’ve got a lot of Bruins and Whitey Bulger; people seem to be talking about that a lot the last two weeks,” said Joanne Bailey Hanna, who cuts hair at Nanci’s and was wearing a Bruins shirt. “I couldn’t even right now tell you when the election is.”
It is that lack of passion for the special election on Tuesday that could spell trouble for Republican Gabriel E. Gomez, who will need the kind of runaway enthusiasm that Brown generated in towns like Braintree if he hopes to topple the Democratic frontrunner, US Representative Edward J. Markey.
A middle-class suburb of 36,000 south of Boston, Braintree has the kind of independent voters and conservative Democrats who traditionally help Massachusetts Republicans overcome liberal turnout in cities like Boston and Cambridge.
“Braintree is representative of many of the suburban towns that these candidates have to win, based upon the demographics and the enrollment,” said Sean E. Powers, chairman of the Braintree Republican Town Committee and a councilor at large. “It has white-collar folks and hard-working blue-collar folks that are swing voters.”
Many residents moved here decades ago after fleeing tougher neighborhoods in Boston, and although they may have grown up revering the party of John F. Kennedy, they now have more in common with Republicans on fiscal and social issues.
Marianne Torney, 59, a waitress and self-described “big prolife person” who grew up in Dorchester, has lived in Braintree for nearly five decades.
As she sat with her Irish-born husband, Stephen Carr, sipping coffee in a booth at Ashley’s, a breakfast spot in South Braintree, she said she likes Gomez but worries that he faces long odds Tuesday.
“The state is so flipping liberal,” she said, but added: “With prayers, anything’s possible. I hope he does win.”
Gomez has made repeated efforts to woo Braintree’s voters.
In May, he held an event around the dining room table of a family whose four members voted for US Representative Stephen F. Lynch in the Democratic primary, in hope of persuading them to support him June 25. He ran in two road races in town and visited a pair of local restaurants. Those stops have won him some fans.
“I’m definitely voting for Gomez; he’s a cutie,” said Kristin Son, owner of Kristin’s cafe, which Gomez visited two weeks ago, before running in a 5 kilometer race. “Want to see a picture of me with him?” Son said, pulling an iPhone from her pocket.
But that kind of buzz can be hard to find in town. Many blame the summertime lull, when families are focused on cookouts and camp, not special elections. There is also lingering weariness from the presidential election in November.
“I am kind of tired of politics,” said Hanna, 55, the barber at Nanci’s. “With the presidential election, it was nonstop ads. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t stand it anymore.’ ”
That was not the reaction when Brown walked into Nanci’s during last year’s Senate race. Braintree’s mayor, a Democrat, escorted him into the shop. Customers who had already had their hair cut were waiting to shake his hand. The barbers squeezed in next to him for photos, one of which still hangs in the office.
“It was very exciting,” said Laurie Seckinger, a barber at Nanci’s.
Brown ended up beating Democrat Elizabeth Warren by 14 percentage points in Braintree last year, a wide margin but nothing like 2010, when he trounced Democrat Martha Coakley by 25 percentage points in the town.
“With Scott Brown, I think you had an exciting vote,” said Lenny Mortell, a barber at Nanci’s. “You were waiting to vote for him. But with Gomez . . . it’s kind of reserved. They’re not going nuts the way they did with Scott.”
Markey, too, seems to be an afterthought for many.
He campaigned once in Braintree, shaking hands at the Olympian Diner in May. By contrast, Warren drew hundreds of supporters to a major rally in Braintree with Senator John F. Kerry and a long list of local officials two days before her victory in November.
“Markey isn’t getting them excited,” said David Richmond, a co-owner of Richmond Hardware in Braintree, which Brown and several other candidates have visited over the years. “He’s been in Congress forever and is running a very cautious campaign, almost not to lose.”
But Gomez seems too far to the right on social issues, Richmond said. So who is he voting for? Richmond would not say, but offered this: “I’m not excited about my choice.”