Rep. Markey’s mettle to be tested in Massachusetts Senate special election

Rep. Stephen Lynch's (D) flirtation with a Senate election campaign in Massachusetts highlights vulnerabilities some Democrats see in Rep. Edward Markey (D), the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination to succeed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Markey hasn’t run a competitive campaign in decades; the congressman has won nearly every one of his races by a large double-digit margin, and did not face a Republican opponent in a handful of them.

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Lynch, on the other hand, has had nominally more competitive races than Markey during his decade-long tenure in Congress. While he ran unopposed twice, he defeated liberal primary challengers during his first race and in 2010, going on to handily win in the general election.

If former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) enters the race, the Democratic nominee will face a battle-tested Republican who won the last special election for the Senate in Massachusetts, and who also fought Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a tough race in November.

One unaffiliated Democratic strategist in the state, who had previously worked on a number of Senate campaigns, said that a number of well-connected Massachusetts Democrats were expressing the same concern: that Markey might be rusty going into the political fight of his life.

“I think there are people who look at this race and say, ‘Jeez, I really hope the game has not passed him by. I really hope that he is ready for what this is going to be,' ” the strategist said.

But Markey has numerous advantages that his supporters say put him in a strong position.

He has $3 million in his coffers, to $800,000 for Lynch. Markey also has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and key endorsements from Kerry; Victoria Kennedy, the widow of former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); and Martha Coakley, the last Democratic nominee to run in a special election.

His experience, and his liberal views on climate change and gay rights, could serve him well in a Democratic primary against Lynch, who voted against President Obama’s healthcare bill, opposes abortion rights and early in his career opposed same-sex marriage. He has since reversed his position on the issue.

Yet some polling suggests Lynch's more centrist views could help him in a fight against Brown, who upset Coakley in a 2010 special election for Sen. Kennedy's seat while promising to vote against the healthcare law.

The most recent independent survey of the race, a MassInc poll released on Friday, gives Brown a strong double-digit lead over Markey, with 53 percent support to Markey's 31. Against a generic Democratic challenger, Brown leads by 8 percentage points.

In 2012, Brown lost to Warren by 7 percentage points, far outperforming GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Brown supporters believe that the lower turnout during a midterm election can boost them to a win.

Recent reports indicate Lynch is still undecided about launching a bid next week. But his spokesman, Scott Ferson, said that while “he hasn’t made a final decision, he’s doing everything that you would need to do to run.”

“He’s got two fundraisers next week, he’s been making lots of calls, getting commitments should he be in,” he said.

Ferson cited Lynch’s previous races, in which “he’s demonstrated that he’s able to win decisively in both primary and general elections,” as evidence that he would be a strong contender in the race.

Markey is gearing up for a fight.

He has hired Warren’s fundraising team and Sarah Benzing, who as campaign manager helped Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) win reelection win despite a heavy barrage of outside spending, something both sides are expecting in the upcoming Massachusetts special.

While his campaign has publicly been quiet, Markey supporters say it hasn't launched with heavier fanfare out of respect for Kerry, who is still, they point out, technically in office. President Obama has nominated Kerry to serve as secretary of State and he is expected to win confirmation, which would trigger a special election.

And his spokeswoman, Giselle Barry, indicated the campaign is building a grassroots following bigger than the one that boosted Warren to a win.

"Rep. Markey is building the strongest grassroots campaign Massachusetts has ever seen. Already, we have support from the environmental community, small businesses and many others who work every day with the people whose issues matter most in this race," she said in an email.

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh warned Markey has to be out on the trail to boost his profile as much as possible when the race begins in earnest.

“Markey needs to come out swinging and campaign nonstop the minute this race starts. In some ways, he has, but he needs to be seen as much as possible,” she said.

Massachusetts in recent years has elected senators who have campaigned as outsiders.

Brown won the 2010 special election by pledging to go to Washington as a “Massachusetts independent,” while Warren cast herself as a reformer headed to Washington to fight for families and the “little guy.”

"Statewide, of late, the only Democrats who have won have been new faces,” Marsh noted.

Such a role would be tougher for Markey, who has spent three decades in Congress.

Yet that might not be a disadvantage against Lynch, who has been in Washington for more than a decade, or Brown, who just left the Senate after two years.

“None of them are new faces," said Marsh. "Markey and Lynch may not be as well-known statewide as Scott Brown, but the new fresh face that voters typically look to is not there.”

Markey’s supporters say his experience is an advantage, and that his leadership in Congress, particularly on climate change, will appeal to voters in the deep-blue state.

His supporters are confident Lynch's vote against the healthcare law, opposition to abortion rights and past opposition to gay rights will be toxic in a primary.

In the general election, Democrats made Brown’s positions on women’s issues a major thorn in the then-senator’s side in his reelection bid, and Markey’s supporters will likely make that same effort with Lynch’s positions on abortion.

Lynch supporters believe he will fare better against Brown than would Markey.

But a poll conducted by the National Association of Government Employees shows a minimal difference between Markey and Lynch against Brown in a head-to-head match-up, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

The poll found Lynch lagging Brown by 9 percentage points and Markey trailing Brown by 10 in a general election. In a primary, it found Markey leading Lynch by 10 points.

Brown has yet to say whether he'll get in the race, and may find a run for the state's governorship more enticing. He did tweet, “Yes. Get ready,” late Friday night, after speculation about Lynch’s entry into the race had reached its highest pitch.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party has already begun messaging against Brown, arguing that a vote for him would be a vote to cancel out Warren in the Senate.

One Massachusetts Democratic strategist involved in the 2010 special election said arguments that Lynch would be a stronger candidate against Brown are unlikely to resonate with primary voters.

“I do not think that Massachusetts primary voters are that pragmatic. They are ideologues,” the strategist said.

Lynch would bank on union support to win a primary. He has a long history with the union community in Massachusetts, at one point serving on the executive board of the local Iron Workers union, and also was a union activist and attorney in periods of his life.

Though he frustrated unions with his vote against the healthcare law, multiple union heads told The Hill that it would be easier for their members to support one of their own.

“I would think Congressman Lynch would be likely to find a more receptive audience with our membership," said Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades union. "He comes from our ranks, he understands our membership better."

Though Callahan and other union heads noted that Markey had a good record on the issues that mattered to union workers, he said that it would likely “be easy to rally the support of the men and women in the building trades for one of our own.”

Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, also said that while Markey had been “working his heart out” in contacting union members since he made his announcement, Lynch, “having served in the labor movement, has a lot of friendships. There’s a distinct difference.”

Still, it is unclear whether the AFL-CIO would endorse in a primary battle, and whether either candidate could lock up the two-thirds support needed to guarantee an endorsement.

Markey supporters argue his positions, which are in lockstep with Warren and the Democratic establishment, would make for a clearer contrast with Brown, making him a better candidate.

Ferson said Lynch would lean heavily on the types of populist themes that Brown made the centerpiece of his bid in 2010 and 2012.

“He puts heavy emphasis on bread-and-butter issues. He would consider himself to be kind of a core traditional Democrat. He’s focused on job creation, economic development. He spent a lot of effort, both when he was in the State Legislature and Congress, on programs that affected families,” he said.

— This post was updated at 8:37 a.m. to reflect comment from Markey's campaign.