BOSTON — The controversies swirling around the Obama administration — from the IRS targeting of conservative groups to lingering questions about last year's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya — are threatening to engulf Massachusetts' special U.S. Senate election.
The troubles could make it harder for Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez to turn the focus of the race back on jobs, the economy and budget as he tries to tie his rival and longtime Democratic Congressman Edward Markey to the nation's sluggish recovery.
But the episodes could also prove problematic for Markey if the public begins to blame President Barack Obama — and by extension other Democratic candidates — for the perceived overreach of the administration.
Although Markey has condemned the behavior of the IRS and said the nation should hunt down those responsible for the Benghazi attack, Gomez is trying to link him to the spate of controversies — including the Justice Department's decision to secretly obtain two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.
"These scandals mark a major abuse of government power and a lack of transparency," Gomez said. "What is Congressman Markey doing about them? Nothing."
Gomez was particularly critical of Markey's comments on questions raised by Republicans about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Markey told the AP that those responsible for the attack "should either be captured and tried or located and killed."
But Markey has also portrayed Republican hearings into the attack as an attempt by GOP lawmakers to undermine confidence in former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible presidential candidate.
"This is a partisan political circus concocted by House Republicans to go after Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential election," Markey said. "I am very interested in getting to the bottom of what happened and to make sure it never happens again."
Gomez, a Cohasset private equity investor and former Navy SEAL, said it's Markey who's trying to play politics with the attack.
"To think it's more important to think about Hillary Clinton's election in 2016 as opposed to getting down to the bottom of the fact that we lost an ambassador and three other people and we still don't have answers on that, it's just despicable," Gomez said during a recent campaign stop.
Gomez also faulted Markey's record on national security issues, saying the longtime congressman "had no idea" how dangerous the world is.
"I know how dangerous a world we live in," Gomez said. "I will take it very seriously when I get down to Washington."
Of all the furors roiling Washington, it is the IRS scandal that could end up doing the most harm to Markey, according to Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University.
Markey has condemned the tougher treatment IRS officials gave tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
"I think we should find anyone who was responsible and fire them," Markey said. "Whenever any group is targeted and singled out, it is unfair and outrageous."
But Whalen said that if any ties are discovered between the White House and the decision to target conservative groups, the brouhaha could end up tarnishing Democratic candidates much like the Watergate scandal tarnished Republican candidates in the 1970s who had nothing to do with the Nixon-era break-in and cover-up.
"If more information comes out and there can be proven a direct link between the White House and any of these scandals — especially the IRS scandal which seems the most serious of the scandals — that could hurt any Democrat running for office," Whalen said.
More broadly, however, the spate of controversies could end up hurting Gomez by diverting voters' attention away from the campaign at a critical time when the political newcomer needs to be making his case to voters.
"It certainly seems to be sucking all the oxygen out of the room," Whalen said.
Gomez is hoping to get a needed boost of cash and enthusiasm Monday when U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and fellow Navy veteran, stops by for a fundraiser and morning rally at a Boston VFW post in the city's Dorchester neighborhood. Tickets to the fundraiser range from $2,600 for lunch to $37,000 per person for a VIP round table.
Markey on Monday is planning to attend a Congressional Badge of Bravery Ceremony at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston to honor Woburn police Officer Mark Gibbons for his actions after a jewelry store robbery in September 2011.
Markey could also release his tax returns this week.
Markey, who has been under pressure to release the returns, said Friday he would make public his last six years of tax returns "very soon," but he declined to give an exact timetable. Gomez has already released six years of his returns.
Meanwhile, the two campaigns appeared to be making little progress in scheduling debates with a little more than six weeks to go before the election, with both sides accusing the other of foot-dragging.
The special election to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Secretary of State John Kerry is June 25.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.