Markey: From 22 Percent to Anointed Senator

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 20, 2013 · 10:00 AM EST

The path to the U.S. Senate doesn’t get much easier than the one Rep. Edward J. Markey is on.

But that smooth path could signal significant potholes ahead.

The Massachusetts Democrat was first elected to Congress more than 30 years ago by winning a multi-candidate primary with just 22 percent of the vote, and ever since, he’s faced scant opposition in his re-election bids. Now he’s the party-anointed candidate in a potentially high-profile special election to replace interim Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, a Democrat.

Markey is untested as a candidate. No one has had a reason to dig deep into his record, so it’s unclear what his opposition research file will contain. What’s more, the congressman’s campaign isn’t close to midseason form: Two months into his Senate run, his campaign website consists of nothing more than a splash page.

But these potential pitfalls could melt away if his colleague, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, can’t raise enough money to compete in the primary (or stave off the attacks that are headed his way). Additionally, Republicans might not put up much of a fight in the general election in the absence of former GOP Sen. Scott P. Brown.

Once again, Markey could benefit from electoral circumstances. He demonstrates the importance of paying attention to crowded, intraparty fights, because you never know where those members will end up after they get elected with slim pluralities the first time.

In 1976, Markey was a 30-year-old, two-term state legislator who ran for an open seat and finished first with 21.6 percent of the vote against 11 other candidates in the Democratic primary. Joseph E. Croken, the administrative assistant to Democratic Rep. Torbert Macdonald, whose death created the vacancy, finished second with 16 percent.

Markey cruised to victory over the GOP nominee in the heavily Democratic district and has never struggled in a general election in his career, including the eight times he ran unopposed.

In fact, the only times Markey has struggled, he had only himself to blame.

In 1984, the congressman faced a competitive primary for re-election after giving up on his bid for the Senate. But he still defeated state Sen. Sam Rotondi by 13 points. Rotondi entered the race for Markey’s open seat but declined to get out when the congressman returned.

In 1992, Markey was re-elected with 62 percent — his low-water mark — after his Republican opponent, plastic surgeon Stephen A. Sohn, made an issue of the fact that the incumbent bounced 92 checks at the House bank.

If it wasn’t for Lynch, Markey might not have even had to work for his Senate seat.

At the end of December, many members of the Democratic establishment in Washington opted for a nomination by coronation. They quickly rallied behind Markey, even before John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of State, because they believed he was the best candidate to defeat Brown and wanted to avoid a messy primary.

But now Markey is left with a relatively easy path, thanks to a mostly clear field and Brown declining to run.

Lynch is credible, but he is likely to be underfunded against Markey. Lynch is also regarded as the more moderate candidate, which isn’t often a strong position in a primary, set for April 30.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Dan Winslow and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez are running on the Republican side. Both will have to work hard just to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot and will struggle in a general election to raise enough money. Those challenges could be tertiary to winning in a state that has elected a Democrat to the Senate in every election except one in the last 40 years.

Of course, some senators are appointed to the chamber, but they often had competitive races in their past or faced them in the future.

Democrat Michael Bennet was appointed to the Senate from Colorado but was promptly met with a tough and close election in 2010, in both the primary and general. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was appointed in January 2009 and cruised to two easy Senate elections, but she survived competitive House races previously.

In Hawaii, newly appointed Sen. Brian Schatz could face opposition in next year’s Democratic primary. That might be the only time Schatz is ever challenged in the seat, given the heavily Democratic nature of the state.

But this year in Massachusetts, it looks like the only candidate who can defeat Markey is Markey.