Democratic Representative Ed Markey emerged from a primary in Massachusetts last night as the frontrunner to win the U.S. Senate seat John Kerry gave up in late January to become secretary of state.
The 36-year House veteran won his party’s nomination by defeating fellow congressman Stephen Lynch in a contest overshadowed by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings.
“In less than two months, we will demonstrate who has the leadership and experience to follow John Kerry,” said Markey, 66, during his victory party at Omni Parker House, a hotel in downtown Boston. “I will stand up in the Senate and be a strong voice for working families in our state.”
Markey, 66, will face Republican businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, 47, in a June 25 special election. Democrats will be seeking to maintain their 55-45 voting advantage over Republicans in the Senate.
Gomez, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, last night called himself a “completely new kind of Republican” in his acceptance speech, which he began in Spanish. A political newcomer, he supports gay marriage and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He has been critical of the White House’s promotion of the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden in a 2011 raid in Pakistan.
Markey had 57 percent of the vote in his race to 43 percent for Lynch, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Gomez had 51 percent to 36 percent for former federal prosecutor Michael Sullivan and 13 percent for state Representative Daniel Winslow, also with 99 percent of precincts counted.
Gomez’s primary win comes at a time when Republican leaders are trying to change the party’s image and improve its appeal to Hispanic voters.
In last year’s presidential race, Democrat Barack Obama in winning re-election got 71 percent of the vote from Hispanics, the nation’s fastest growing voting bloc. Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, took 27 percent, down from 31 percent for the party’s presidential ticket in 2008, 44 percent in 2004, and 35 percent in 2000.
In a sign of how seriously the Markey campaign views the upcoming challenge, his staff took just four minutes after Gomez was declared the victor to put out a statement accusing him of being “the first domino for the national GOP seeking to take control of the U.S. Senate and enact an extreme agenda.”
Markey enters the eight-week sprint to the special election with financial and partisan advantages. The winner will serve until 2014 and will then have to run again to seek a full six-year term.
Among voters choosing a party affiliation when registering, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in Massachusetts. All of the state-wide elected officials are Democrats -- including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who won her seat last November -- as are all nine members of the House delegation.
The most recent campaign finance disclosure reports showed Markey with $4.6 million in his campaign war chest -- nine times as much as Gomez. The Republican won his primary in part by spending more than $600,000 into his own money.
“If Gomez can write large checks to his campaign, he might make it a race,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.
Moreover, Gomez has wealthy friends. A super-political action committee called the Committee for a Better Massachusetts, which can raise unlimited sums of money from individuals and corporations, has spent about $117,000 on radio ads supporting him and attacking Markey, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission in Washington.
Markey, the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, stressed in the primary campaign his three decades of support for gay rights, votes for women’s reproductive rights and battles with the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun lobby.
The message from his camp: A vote for Markey was a vote for the president’s agenda. The congressman was endorsed by Kerry and Victoria Kennedy, the wife of the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy.
Veterans of the Obama and Warren campaigns filled the ranks of his paid staff and volunteer army. At a recent Markey “Get Out the Vote” rally in Boston attended by hundreds, nearly every person in the room stood up when Markey’s field director, Carl Nilsson, asked if they’d previously worked on one of those two campaigns.
Markey has had his eye on a Senate seat for nearly three decades. He briefly launched a primary bid for the chamber in 1984, and in 2010 he considered a similar run. He opted instead to endorse Representative Michael Capuano, who lost the Democratic primary to state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Markey, from the Boston suburb of Malden, now must rally to his side the “lunch pail” Democrats -- middle-income families and union households -- who dominated Lynch’s base and may be tempted to vote for a Republican in the special election, said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston.
“Markey needs Steve Lynch to be his biggest ally and even then he still risks losing votes,” Paleologos said.
Lynch, 58, joined Markey at a Boston hotel this morning and declared himself “eager to be a full-throated, if I could, supporter” of him.
South Boston Roots
Lynch, who during the last days of his primary campaign suffered voice problems, had played up his independent streak and roots in South Boston’s public housing complexes. The 11-year congressman introduced himself to other parts of the state with a series of television commercials in which a construction worker, a student taking night-time college courses and a welder look into the camera and say: “I am Stephen Lynch.”
Gomez, will attempt a repeat of the 2010 Senate special election when the state sent shock waves through the national political landscape by electing Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat long occupied by Kennedy.
More than half of the state’s registered voters are unaffiliated, and Brown’s folksy style and opposition to the health-care measure Obama was then pushing through Congress appealed to them as he defeated Coakley.
Brown, 53, lost his bid for a full six-year term in last year’s general election to Warren, 63.
Unaffiliated voters could participate in either party’s primary yesterday. Turnout in the Democratic race exceeded 539,000, while more than 188,000 votes were cast in the Republican contest.
Gomez in his speech last night emphasized his willingness to buck party orthodoxy on such issues as immigration and gay rights.
“If you are looking for a rigid partisan, I’m not your guy,” he said. “If you are looking for a person who will take orders from party leaders, I’m not your guy.”
The Markey campaign countered by highlighting Gomez’s last appearance on the national stage: In August 2012, he was a spokesman for a group called Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund that released a video accusing President Barack Obama of politicizing the raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Peter Blute, a former Republican congressman from Massachusetts, said his party faces an “uphill fight” to win the June election.
One strategy is to “forge a center-right coalition against Markey,” Blute said. “He’s pretty liberal, you could argue he is to the left of Ted Kennedy.”
Markey has said the 2013 general election won’t be a repeat of the surprise Democratic defeat in 2010 -- a frequent theme on the campaign trail for him. “This time Democrats are not going to agonize; Democrats are going to organize,” Markey told a group of Harvard University students at a recent campaign stop.
After Kerry, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984, won the chamber’s confirmation to serve as the top U.S. diplomat, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, filled the seat on an interim basis with his former chief of staff William “Mo” Cowan, also a Democrat. Cowan will step down after the special election.
The primary races got off to a slow start as a series of snowstorms pummeled the northeast -- including one that dumped two feet on the Boston area and prompted Patrick to close local roads for the first time in 35 years.
In the campaign’s final stretch, a pair of bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three and injuring more than 260 people.
“It froze everything in place,” said Ubertaccio. The candidates temporarily suspended their politicking, and “with Lynch unable to campaign, Markey maintained his front-runner status,” Ubertaccio said.