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The Boston Globe

Politics

For Markey’s Senate challenger, an uphill battle for ‘political reform’

US Senate candidate Brian Herr campaigns at the Bolton Fair in Lancaster.

Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe

US Senate candidate Brian Herr campaigned at the Bolton Fair in Lancaster.

WASHINGTON — Brian Herr says he is used to waging what others consider lost causes.

He was discouraged from running the Boston Marathon, which he has now accomplished 25 years in a row. As a town selectman in Hopkinton he was politely informed it was impossible to lower taxes and hire more firefighters. That, too, came to pass.

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“I’ve been told many times in my life what I can’t do,” said Herr, 51.

But this time the engineer and father of five acknowledges the odds of achieving his next goal are even longer: beating Edward J. Markey in a Senate race virtually ignored by the political establishment — and even many Bay State voters — because the incumbent Democrat is viewed as exceedingly difficult to beat in such a liberal state and facing no well-known challenger.

One key measure of Herr’s longshot bid is the difficulty raising money across the Commonwealth, let alone from a national Republican Party training its resources on other contests around the country considered winnable.

Herr’s latest filing to the Federal Election Commission shows his campaign has under $50,000 on hand — less than one-tenth of Markey’s. (And Markey isn’t fund-raising very strenuously.)

That is also less than half what Herr raised in 2010 when he ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to challenge Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester.

He maintains that he is undaunted.

Herr, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Maryland and grew up in Western Pennsylvania before moving to Massachusetts after college to take a job with Westinghouse. He later earned a master’s degree in government from Harvard.

He credits catching the political bug from hearing his mother, in her Irish brogue, tell stories about his grandfather’s lifelong political exploits, along with growing up with six siblings.

“When you are one of seven kids you learn to negotiate,” he quipped.

But the little attention his underdog bid is receiving is decidedly an advantage for Markey, who won a special election last year to fill John F. Kerry’s term after more than three decades in the House of Representatives.

A recent analysis by the Cook Political Report predicted the race to be a “solid” Democratic win, concluding that “no first-tier candidate has come forward, meaning that Markey will get only nominal opposition on his path to a full six-year term.”

Herr refuses to be written off so easily.

He believes he has a chance to tap into widespread disaffection with Washington — and believes he does not need a big campaign chest to do it. A contested governor’s race will help, he thinks.

“From the perspective of the average voters in Massachusetts, whether they are on the far left, the center, or the right — and we talk to all of them — everyone is frustrated,” Herr said in a recent interview during his lunch break at WESCO Distribution, an industrial supply company in Westborough. “The word that comes up most frequently is dysfunction.”

A key message he delivers at more frequent campaign stops and in local media interviews is the need for structural changes in the governing process to encourage more compromise — what he calls “political reform that can help improve our form of democracy.”

On the issues, Herr positions himself as a fiscal conservative who is open-minded on a number of hot-button issues not likely to go over well with national Republicans.

He says he supports abortion rights — “I believe women have a right to choose” — as well as same-sex marriage. As for the size of government, he says, “I am not a government hater. I just think it is important that each level of government focus on what it does best.”

Those who have worked with Herr consider him a positive force for change.

“One of the things I always loved and respected about Brian is his ability to maintain composure and work on a solution that works for people,” said Todd Cestari, 48, an independent who served with him on the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen. “He always seems to come in as a peacemaker with the approach that there has to be a solution that satisfies both sides. He has never been extremely partisan.”

Indeed, Herr generally has little negative to say about Markey — whom he hopes to debate in person before Election Day — other than that he has been in Washington far too long and appears of touch.

For his part, Markey contends that Herr’s presence in the Senate would only empower a Republican agenda that he believes “would not be good for Massachusetts or our country.”

He says he is eager to discuss the issues with his opponent after the Democratic primary in September.

Markey’s staff says the senator has enlisted 1,000 campaign volunteers so far who have knocked on nearly 22,00 doors and called more than 19,000 voters across the state.

Asked what his personal strategy is, Markey responded: “The best politics is the best policy that you are fighting for, on the economy, gun violence, the environment, and climate change. I think that is the best way to get reelected and that is what I have been doing right from the day after I got elected.”

Herr, meanwhile, is counting on voters taking a second look.

“I just believe if you challenge the paradigms, if you challenge the status quo, in a reasonable and respectful way — and you stay at it — you can get things done.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender
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