After candidates spent weeks furiously scrambling to qualify for the campaigns, two spirited special primary races for the US Senate seat have taken shape, with a surprising three-way Republican battle and a fight between two seasoned Democratic congressmen.
The final piece to the GOP race fell into place in the last few days with reports that Michael J. Sullivan, former US attorney and onetime Plymouth district attorney, has collected enough signatures of registered voters to qualify for the GOP ballot.
Two Republican rivals, state Representative Daniel B. Winslow of Norfolk and Cohasset businessman Gabriel E. Gomez, have also collected the necessary signatures. Unlike Sullivan, they paid signature-gathering firms to help reach the threshold.
Sullivan, seen by many analysts to be the early front-
runner for the April 30 primary, has collected more than 20,000 signatures. He believes he has more than the 10,000 signatures that he needs to be certified as registered Republicans or unenrolled independents to get his name on the ballot.
The deadline for getting the nominating petitions to city and town clerks for certification is 5 p.m. Wednesday. That ends a tough several weeks in which campaign workers, braving the worst winter conditions, faced the shortest time period in memory to collect signatures.
Sullivan’s success in marshalling enough volunteers to circulate his nomination papers assures that Republicans in Massachusetts will have a serious contest for their party’s Senate nomination.
“It has been the biggest logistical nightmare in the smallest time-frame.’’ said Steve Aylward, a Republican state committeeman who helped spearhead the move to get Sullivan into the race. “It’s everything we said it would be, a real grass-roots effort.’’
Less than a month ago, the party was in disarray after former US senator Scott Brown shocked the leadership and activists by announcing he would not run.
“This is surprising, given the state of the GOP when Brown dropped out and people didn’t think they would have a serious candidate,’’ said Peter N. Ubertaccio, political science professor at Stonehill College.
GOP activists faced a particularly daunting task to quickly gather signatures after Brown’s unexpected and late withdrawal. The general election to fill former US senator John Kerry’s seat will be held June 25.
Unlike the Republicans, US Representatives Edward J. Markey of Malden and Stephen P. Lynch of South Boston, both Democrats, had political organizations, campaign funds, and more time to get a strong signature drive underway. Each is expected to easily clear the legal hurdle to get their name on the primary ballot.
But Sullivan’s presence in the GOP primary could put a drag on Lynch’s chances of drawing on socially conservative independents. Sullivan, who opposes abortion and gay marriage, drew strong support from abortion opponents in his signature-gathering efforts.
Unenrolled voters can choose to vote in either of the primaries. Lynch, although he has modified his antiabortion position in recent months and reversed his opposition to gay marriage, would probably appeal to social conservatives.
Markey, a 36-year veteran of the House, supports abortion rights and gay marriage, as does Winslow. Gomez, a newcomer to state politics, has not made his positions known, saying he would emerge publicly after the signature drive ends.
“Sullivan’s making the ballot makes it tougher for Lynch to pull conservative unenrolled voters into the Democratic primary,’’ said Rob Gray, a Republican consultant. “He has an equal or better appeal to those voters with his conservative positions on issues, particular on his prolife stand and his . . . views’’ opposing gay marriage.
But Scott Ferson, Lynch’s campaign consultant, disputed that analysis. He said only a small fraction of independents would vote in a GOP primary because a strong majority of them tend to vote in Democratic contests. He said Sullivan’s candidacy is a strong argument for the Democrats to nominate Lynch, who has positioned himself in recent weeks as a social moderate, seeking to contrast himself with Markey.
“It speaks to the fact that Lynch measures up to a better general election candidate, because Sullivan is a very strong candidate,’’ said Ferson.
Gray said the fact that Sullivan used only volunteers to gather a huge of amount of signatures indicates he has strong grass-roots support in the GOP.