Republican Senate nominee Gabriel E. Gomez’s runaway victory in Tuesday’s primary delivers an unwelcome jolt to Massachusetts Democrats, with the dynamics of the upcoming general election race offering an unnerving comparison to the 2010 Senate election that still haunts many of them.
Indeed, on paper, the 47-year-old Gomez can lay claim to many of the traits that helped propel Scott Brown into the US Senate: youthful-looking, camera-friendly, a military background, and barely a blip on the Democrats’ radar just months before winning the primary. Unlike Brown, he has no political experience, but his resume is arguably more muscular, with a stint in private equity and service as a US Navy SEAL.
That is stacked against the Democratic nominee, US Representative Edward J. Markey, who is 66 years old, has served in Congress since 1977, and can boast virtually no employment experience outside elected office.
The specter of a replay of 2010, when the prohibitive favorite, Martha Coakley, ran what analysts called an aloof campaign and coughed up the late Edward M. Kennedy’s US Senate seat to the long-shot Brown, is too obvious for Democrats to ignore.
Gomez has at times seemed green on the stump and tripped through a few missteps early in the campaign. But privately, Democrats say they would have vastly preferred facing Michael J. Sullivan, a former US attorney, who had led in public polling, or state Representative Daniel B. Winslow, who had trailed both his rivals.
Markey, of course, starts the general election with some significant advantages over Gomez. There are more than three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans in Massachusetts, according to state figures current through last October. But the majority of Bay State voters, nearly 53 percent, are unenrolled.
Gomez gives Republicans two things the national party needs. He is a high-profile Latino candidate as the party is trying to make up for its deficit among Latino voters, a gap vividly on display in President Obama’s victory last November. And he has a shot at prying from Democrats a Senate seat they have held since Democratic challenger Paul Tsongas beat incumbent Republican Edward Brooke in 1978.
“He’s a Republican, Hispanic, who comes across as moderate,” said James Innocenzi, a Virginia-based Republican strategist. “And right now the party is going after every Hispanic they can, realizing what happened in the presidential. He could emerge as a sort of marquee Hispanic candidate.”
Innocenzi added: “If it’s competitive, money will show up out of nowhere. If the general election is competitive, Republicans see a chance to steal a seat, and you could see a lot of money coming into Boston.”
Republicans wasted no time positioning Gomez as a natural heir to Brown’s upset legacy.
“You’re hitting all sevens in the slot machine once again,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican public affairs specialist in Washington, D.C. “This time you have a Hispanic Republican who has the potential for staying power in Massachusetts. Brown won, and lost his election. [Gomez] would have the potential to stick around for longer.”
Republicans running in Massachusetts face the perennial problem of being married in voters’ minds to the more conservative members of their national party. During the campaign leading up to his 2010 US Senate election, Brown, then a state senator, ducked that problem, his campaign famously asking the National Republican Senatorial Committee to keep a low profile in the state. At the same time, Brown harnessed grass-roots excitement that allowed him to flood his campaign coffers with contributions from across the country.
Last year, Brown had a harder time eluding the national GOP brand in his duel with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren waited until relatively late in the race to try to nationalize the race, her campaign eager to emphasize her own life story. But, in their first debate, she leveled Brown with the charge that empowering a Senate Republican majority could place Senator James Inhofe, who has derided climate change as a “hoax,” in charge of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Gomez’s efforts during the primary to appeal to core Republican voters offer Markey a clear opening. In a January letter to Governor Deval Patrick requesting consideration for an interim appointment to Kerry’s seat, Gomez indicated he would support President Obama on gun control. But after that letter became public in March, Gomez said he would have backed a failed Senate bill expanding firearm sale background checks but would not support banning assault weapons.
In the same letter, Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants, said he would back Obama on immigration reform, a stance used against him by his primary opponents but one that could ultimately lend him credibility as a bridge-builder and could prove useful in the general election campaign.
The letter as a whole, which both Sullivan and Winslow used as a cudgel against Gomez, could blunt Democratic efforts to portray him as hard right in the general election.
Along with gun control and immigration, the state’s next US senator will probably face votes on the budget showdown between Obama and Republicans, foreign policy questions like how to respond to strife in Syria, and national security, which surged to the fore in the campaign’s closing weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings.
The Markey campaign started in on Gomez Tuesday night, saying that the GOP primary did not sufficiently vet him as a candidate and that his nuanced position on abortion would turn off Bay State independents.
“A vote for Gabriel Gomez is one more Republican vote against sensible gun laws, Social Security, and a woman’s right to choose,” said Markey spokesman Andrew Zucker.
Gomez has said he accepts federal abortion policy as settled law, but calls himself personally antiabortion.
The Democratic primary map shows concentrated swaths of voters who chose US Representative Stephen F. Lynch over Markey, on the South Shore, in the Foxborough-Fall River corridor, near the New Hampshire border in the Merrimack Valley, and in Worcester County.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.