BOSTON (AP) — Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Stephen Lynch tried to shift the focus of the special election campaign to the economic plight of the poor and middle class Wednesday, as the Republican candidates sparred over ads funded by a Tea Party-aligned group on behalf of GOP Senate hopeful Michael Sullivan.
Lynch said that despite rising stock prices, many people are struggling to make ends meet. He said the improving economy is masking what he calls an ‘‘inequality of opportunity’’ for people looking for work.
‘‘We have a new problem in this country, but it’s got an old name: poverty,’’ Lynch said, addressing a gathering of union workers in downtown Boston.
Lynch said the country is facing ‘‘two-way poverty’’ targeting those who are poor and unable to find a job and those in the middle class fearful of losing their jobs.
Lynch, a former ironworker, said if elected he will bring the concerns of ordinary workers to the Senate floor.
‘‘At least one U.S. senator should be able to say I worked for a living. I strapped on a pair of work boots every day,’’ Lynch said. ‘‘We have never had someone stand in the U.S. Senate on our behalf. Now we have a chance.’’
Lynch and fellow Congressman Edward Markey are facing each other in the Democratic primary April 30.
Markey’s first two television ads have focused on his advocacy for tougher gun laws and his role in holding BP responsible for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Lynch and Markey have both received the backing of unions. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest union, is supporting Markey while Lynch has backing of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Also Wednesday, the Republican candidates ratcheted up their criticism, focusing on radio and television ads by the Conservative Campaign Committee aimed at helping Sullivan defeat fellow Republicans Gabriel Gomez and Daniel Winslow.
In a radio ad, a narrator says Winslow ‘‘likes giving money to Democrats’’ and lists contributions Winslow made to Democratic candidates.
An Associated Press review of state campaign finance reports from 2003 to 2011 found Winslow donated $2,300 to Democrats. Winslow said he’s never given to a Democrat during an election cycle when a Republican was in the race.
Sullivan made a $100 donation to a Democrat candidate in a three-way Massachusetts House primary when there was a Republican running.
The second radio ad targets Gomez, saying he’s ‘‘acted like anything but a Republican’’ and supported President Barack Obama for president. Gomez made a $230 donation to Obama in 2007, but said he voted for Republican John McCain.
A spokesman for the group said they endorsed Sullivan because of his history as a fiscal conservative, and his public safety record of law and order.
In a written statement, Gomez said Sullivan should either ‘‘disavow the statements from this extreme group’’, or ‘‘man up and deliver these attacks himself.’’
Winslow also faulted Sullivan for not speaking out against the ads.
‘‘This is a group that has been preaching intolerance, a hate group if you will,’’ Winslow said. ‘‘It’s unacceptable in Massachusetts. I've called on Mike Sullivan to disavow this group.’’
In an Internet posting, the group’s leader Lloyd Marcus criticized gay activists as ‘‘outrageously aggressive’’ and ‘‘hell bent on forcing all of us, particularly Christians, to say their behavior is normal.’’
In 2010, Marcus was one of the headliners at a Tea Party Express rally on Boston Common.
Sullivan has said he’s not familiar with Marcus or his group.
Sullivan campaign spokesman Paul Moore returned the criticism Wednesday, saying Winslow ‘‘has spent weeks trying to divide pro-life and pro-choice Republicans for his own opportunistic benefit.’’
Moore also criticized Gomez for sending a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick in January asking that he appoint him to the Senate seat on an interim basis. In the letter Gomez pledged to support President Barack Obama’s positions on guns and immigration. The radio ad also points to the Gomez letter.
Gomez has since taken positions at odds with Obama, including saying he’s opposed to an assault weapons ban.
Moore said the letter makes Gomez a ‘‘tough sell in a Republican primary.’’
Also Wednesday, Sullivan announced his campaign has hired Beth Myers, a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president and campaign manager for his 2008 run, and Peter Flaherty, a former deputy chief of staff for Romney and senior adviser for former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s special election and re-election campaigns.
The primaries are April 30. The special election is June 25.