In Tuesday's Massachusetts Senate primary, only one of the party contests will actually determine how competitive the general election is--the Republican primary.
Most of the slim attention paid to the race to succeed Secretary of State John Kerry has focused on the Democratic slugfest between Reps. Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch--and rightly so. In the solidly blue state, either one will be the frontrunner in a general election.
But the more important contest may be on the GOP side. In the closing days, strategists on both sides believe former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez has the momentum to win the nomination.
Gomez possessed the largest television presence among Republicans over the past month and crushed the other candidates in fundraising. A Suffolk University/7News poll out Monday showed Gomez leading in key bellwether areas over former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, with state Rep. Dan Winslow a distant third. Winslow just released his first TV ad yesterday, highlighting his newspaper endorsements, while Tea Party groups backing Sullivan have aired TV ads hitting the other candidates in the race.
If it is Gomez who does emerge, national Republicans don’t believe they’re automatically down for the count despite the state’s significant Democratic tilt. If nothing else, showcasing Gomez gives them a top candidate with a profile they badly need to replicate across the country--a young, Hispanic moderate.
Gomez, 47, is the son of Colombian immigrants and learned English as a second language. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy and became a pilot and later a Navy SEAL. After leaving the Navy, he received his MBA from Harvard Business School and went to work for Boston-based investment company Advent International.
A fiscal conservative, Gomez is more moderate on social issues, though that hasn't been his focus. He supports gay marriage as a state decision, and while personally opposed to abortion, he hasn’t made overturning Roe v. Wade a key point.
However, that moderation, and seeming overeagerness, could hurt him. His fellow Republicans have attacked him for seeking the temporary Senate appointment earlier this year, writing to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick that he would support President Obama on guns and immigration. Gomez has said he favors expanded background checks, but not an assault weapons ban.
Another resume line Democrats are sure to bring up: Gomez was the spokesman for a controversial group of military and intelligence officials who accused Obama of endangering national security by releasing information around the killing of Osama bin Laden. The group released a 22-minute online film during last year's presidential election, "Dishonorable Disclosures: How leaks and politics threaten our national security."
Like the Democratic race, Republicans also took a pause after the tragic Boston bombings. But Gomez was uniquely positioned to talk about the bombings--he was running the Boston Marathon that day, and had just crossed the finish line before the first bomb exploded.
According to one source, don’t be surprised if national Republicans spend some money on this race. Party committees could get involved, but outside groups have already played in the primary and may continue to do so. A Gomez political action committee led by former Romney top strategist Eric Fehrnstrom has run radio ads boosting Gomez as a “new Republican." Many other former Romney aides are working on either the Gomez and Sullivan campaigns.
DEMOCRATS REMAIN CONFIDENT
After a supposedly tight and expensive race last cycle saw Elizabeth Warren thump Republican incumbent Scott Brown by a more-than-expected eight points, Democrats rightly scoff at the idea that this will be competitive in the end, no matter who their nominee is.
Without Brown on the ballot, the race immediately lost most of its starpower appeal. The contest, for both sides, was seen as a foregone conclusion, with Markey as the Democratic frontrunner who would slide through to the general election. And with Brown now reportedly even weighing a Senate run in neighboring New Hampshire, there was a talent vacuum in the Bay State GOP that needed to be filled as well.
The competitiveness of the GOP primary has undoubtedly had an impact on the Democratic race, too. If there were one standardbearer for Republicans, more independents and GOP voters may have decided to pull a ballot for the Democratic primary--probably helping the more conservative Lynch who has tried to come on too little too late.
Privately, Republicans have always feared Lynch more. As a moderate and a social conservative, he would hold more sway over independent voters. But the Democratic establishment lined up early behind Markey, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Kerry himself, and the Kennedy family backing the dean of the congressional delegation.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some unease with Markey. He hasn’t had a competitive race since his first 1976 election, and he’s been hit for spending too much time at his suburban Maryland home just outside Washington.
Republicans have already been previewing their hits on Markey and will paint him as a relic of Washington. Democrats like Markey’s experience compared to Gomez, but one national GOP strategist said the past vs. the future dichotomy they’ll aim to make is just too easy.
CAN LIGHTNING STRIKE TWICE?
To be sure, this race is far from the brewing upset that was Brown’s shocking defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in early 2010, and either Markey or Lynch is the heavy favorite after Tuesday. Scott Brown’s win was like lightning in a bottle--there’s no national wave against Democrats, no Obamacare for the GOP to rally against, and while Markey hasn’t run the most impressive of campaigns, he hasn’t had damaging gaffes like Coakley did.
But it’s only if Gomez is the victor that national Republicans would take a second look at this contest, and Democratic pressure on Markey to perform up to par increases even more.
Even if Gomez wins and ultimately does fall short, if he runs an impressive campaign, expect his name to pop up for other offices in the Bay State--maybe even a 2014 rematch with Markey, when the seat is regularly scheduled to be up.
For Republicans, boosting Gomez may be a win-win even if it’s not a win at the ballot box on June 25.