Representative Ed Markey speaks during a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo)

Massachusetts is, by standard measures, a Democratic state. But special elections in the Bay State have produced their share of Republican senators. Indeed, since the 1940s, Edward Kennedy is the only Democrat to have won a special election for a Senate seat—the 1962 race to finish the term his older brother gave up to assume the presidency.

So when Massachusetts voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a senator to finish the term of Secretary of State John Kerry, the results will be watched closely for signals from the state that shocked the nation in 2010 by electing Republican Scott Brown to finish Kennedy’s last term.

The Democratic nominee in this year’s special election, Congressman Ed Markey, has run a relatively old-school Democratic race, and most polls give him the lead. But Republican Gabriel Gomez, a wealthy private equity investor who self-financed his way into the Republican nomination, has mounted an aggressive challenge as “a new generation of Republican leader with a great American story.” He’s gotten significant financial support from outside the state, including a boost from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who desperately wants a Massachusetts win to promote the notion that Republicans are on their way to a Senate takeover in 2014.

Additionally, this contest has played out during a period when Washington Democrats, including President Obama, have been battered by negative headlines and persistent congressional inquiries. That’s tough for Markey, a House veteran who has served thirty-six years in Washington and, thus, is positioned as the “experienced” candidate at a time when that commodity is not always valued.

So this is a real race.

And the message from its finish will be an important one.

Markey and Gomez are very different individuals with very different positions on the issues. Some effort has been made to pitch Gomez as a moderate who could work with President Obama, in the spirit of Brown at his most mainstream. But Markey and Gomez have little shared ground—they’ve clashed on everything from whether Edward Snowden should be labeled a “traitor” to the threat posed by big-money influence on politics.

The most fundamental difference, however, is on the question of austerity.

And that’s where this race will turn in one direction or the other.

Gomez is a classic proponent of austerity. He seeks to balance budgets on the backs of working families and retirees. The Republican nominee supports raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits for future retirees and he wants to alter the formula for cost-of-living adjustments for seniors. Gomez is an ardent supporter of the “chained CPI” scheme, or chained consumer price index scheme, which is generally seen as a strategy for cutting costs at the expense of the elderly.

Though President Obama has entertained the “chained CPI” shift, Markey—like many of his fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—is explicit in his opposition to the change. Indeed, with backing from unions and groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Progressive Democrats of America, he has made that opposition central to his campaign message in the special-election race.

While McConnell and Gomez have tried to pitch the Republican candidate’s support for the “chained CPI” switch as evidence of his “bipartisan” commitment—an ironic message coming from the fiercely partisan minority leader—Markey has been steadfast in rejecting the arguments of politicians of both parties who would undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Decrying chained CPI as “cutting people’s income,” the congressman says of adjusted figures under the plan: “That new number won’t keep up with inflation on things like food and health care, the basics we need to live on, and that is just plain wrong.”

“My opponent Gabriel Gomez, he supports chained CPI and cuts to Social Security benefits,” Markey said at a recent event at the Hebrew Senior Life center in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Current and future seniors and veterans would lose $146 billion in benefits over the next 10 years.”

The congressman has said pretty much the same thing in intense televised debates with Gomez, who adopts the standard DC-insider line of suggesting that he wants to “tell you the truth” about so-called “entitlement” programs, debts and deficits.

The truth, of course, is that there are many ways to balance budgets.

Wealthy campaign donors who would prefer not to surrender their advantaged positions when it comes to tax policies, and corporations that do not want to face reasonable regulations or basic accountability, would prefer to shift the burden toward working Americans and the elderly. That’s the austerity line that Gomez promotes.

Working Americans prefer investments in infrastructure and job creation, fairer taxes and guarantees that earned benefits will not be threatened. That’s the growth agenda that is at odds with austerity, and Markey has embraced its core themes.

It is this debate over basic economics that has defined the Massachusetts race.

The choice that voters render Tuesday will have less to do with the candidates than with sentiments regarding an approach to balancing budgets that errs on the side of fairness or on the side of ever-expanding income inequality. Ultimately, that is what the austerity debate comes down to, and the austerity debate is what the Markey-Gomez race is all about.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”

Mitch McConnell has a new answer for the question of what causes distrust of government: unions.