Gomez-Markey: What You’ve Missed While Not Following The Massachusetts Special Election

TIME speaks with the candidates a day before the election.

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Boston Globe via Getty Images

U.S. Senate candidates Gabriel Gomez, shaking hands with State Rep. Edward Markey June 16, 2013.

Gabriel Gomez and Congressman Ed Markey are in the race of their lives for Secretary of State John Kerry‘s old Senate seat. The special election, held Tuesday, gives the winner a chance to influence how America defends the Mexican border and creates a path to citizenship for its immigrants. He may even help the nation confront its long-term budgetary woes and change how the country deals with gun violence. Yet Boston is bored, and slightly confused.

According to a recent Republican/CBS 3 Springfield poll, nearly a quarter of likely voters say they might change their mind. The confusion is partly due to the candidates’ struggle to distinguish themselves on the issue Massachusetts cares most about: jobs. This is how Markey told TIME he differed from his opponent:

I would say on a woman’s right’s to choose. He says he could vote for a Supreme Court justice that would overturn it. On assault weapons bans. [Markey favors; Gomez opposes.] He also says that he could put the mortgage interest deduction for home ownership on the table. I don’t think we should be doing that. He also says that he thinks the Wall Street reforms are too tough. I think we need a tough watchdog to ensure we don’t see a repetition in what happens in 2007 and 2008.

And here is what Gomez told TIME:

How I differ from Congressman Markey is, he is a career politician. He’s done it for 37 years, it’s the only job he has. And I’ve been both in the military and the private sector, helping companies grow and I’ll always put the people before party and politics. He spent the past 37 years putting DC and the party before the people.

The responses synthesize the last four months of the campaign. The main appeal of Gomez is his identity—an ex-Navy Seal, Harvard Business School Latino graduate new to the political scene (and partisanship—he wrote Gov. Deval Patrick in January that he supported Barack Obama in 2008 and supports his gun control position.) But two percent of likely voters said the issue most important to them is the candidate’s background, and zero percent said the candidate’s ability to work in a bipartisan way, according to the Republican/CBS 3 Springfield poll. Surprisingly Rep. Markey, who has been in Congress 37 years, choose to raise topics—abortion, gun control, tax reform, and Wall Street reform—which few care about. None of these issues garnered more than 5 percent.

Voters’ second primary concern is “Don’t know,” and it’s clear that Massachusetts voters may just not care. Take a look at the fundraising numbers. In 2012, progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren raised over $42 million to win Ted Kennedy’s old seat. Her opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, who will stump tonight for the first time with Gomez, raised over $28 million. According to the latest report, Markey has raised nearly $8 million and Gomez over $3 million. From Warren-Brown to Markey-Gomez, there’s a forty percent drop off in the number of registered voters who have “a lot” of interest in the election’s outcome, according to the Republican/CBS 3 Springfield poll. Of course, one would expect some dip in fundraising potential in a special election campaign which only lasted four months (and the winner will only be a Senator for seventeen) versus a Senate campaign in a presidential election year.

If Boston is bored, you wouldn’t know talking to the candidates. “We have constructed a first-class get out the vote organization across all 351 cities and towns,” Markey told TIME. “I’m feeling very good about all of the enthusiasm I’m meeting in every city and town that I’ve been visiting.”

“We feel very good about Tuesday,” Gomez told TIME. “The level of enthusiasm is great on our side. Our message is out there and its resonated. Its resonated not only among Republicans but also among significantly among the Democrats and among the independents here in Massachusetts.”

Yet one will lose–and the polling has Gomez down in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one. While Gomez is leading by 15 points among independents, Markey is beating Gomez, 49 percent to 41 percent.

If Markey hasn’t been able to adequately define how he is different than Gomez on the economy, his supporters have tried to link Gomez to a character Massachusetts knows all to well, former Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost the state by over 20 points in the 2012 presidential election. In one ad, Senate Majority PAC rips Gomez for being a Wall Street insider who has the “same economic policies as Mitt Romney.” In another, the League of Conservation Voters hired a Mitt Romney impersonator to meet potential voters and attend a Gomez rally. “Endorsing him [Gomez] is endorsing myself,” says the fake Romney.

Gomez has tried to use Markey’s career in politics against him. “He’s had 37 years to get immigration reform done. He didn’t do it,” says Gomez, who also endorses the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration plan and wants to make it a “Gang of Nine.” “He had 37 years to get comprehensive tax reform done. He didn’t do it,” Gomez tells TIME. The state GOP has hit Markey for being a “dirty” politician, and touts Gomez as a “new politician” who will clean up Washington by advocating for term limits, forbidding Congressmen-turned lobbyists, and relinquishing salary if Congress don’t pass a budget. Gomez also hit Markey for allegedly raising taxes 271 times in a “Higher Taxes, Old Ideas” spot.

The hope for Gomez is that polling hasn’t proven a perfect indicator in the past. In 2010, the Boston Globe had Brown 15 points behind Democrat Martha Coakley nine days before the election. Gomez told TIME that even if he does lose, “I’m not going away. I’m committed to this, I want to serve, and I will find a way to serve again.”