Marisa DeFranco, a North Shore immigration lawyer whose financially strapped campaign is relying on a small band of passionate volunteers, has collected enough voter signatures to qualify for a primary race with Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
The unexpected development could complicate Warren's much-ballyhooed challenge to Republican incumbent Scott Brown.
An official familiar with the signature process confirmed Wednesday that DeFranco has submitted to local election officials more than the 10,000 certified signatures required as a first step for her to appear on the Sept. 6 primary ballot.
Barring any serious problems with her nomination papers, DeFranco should also be able to clear the final hurdle to get her name on the primary ballot, winning enough support at next month's Democratic state convention, according to party veterans.
Many political insiders had discounted DeFranco's ability to collect the necessary signatures, pointing to the fact that she had little impact at the party caucuses in February where delegates were chosen for the June 2 convention.
They also note that she has only raised $41,613 in the past year and had just over $8,080 in her political account as of April 1. Warren, in an unprecedented fund-raising drive, has raised $15.6 million and has close to $11 million in her campaign account.
Under Democratic Party rules, DeFranco must get 15 percent of the delegate vote at the June convention to appear on the primary ballot. That task, though often a struggle for an underfinanced candidate, may be far easier than DeFranco faced in gathering signatures.
"If she doesn't make the ballot it would be a very great surprise,'' said John Walsh, the state Democratic Party chairman. Walsh said that delegates, impressed that DeFranco secured enough signatures, will feel that she deserves to compete in the party primary.
Walsh and others noted that since the 15-percent rule was put in place in 1982, no leading Democratic candidate has eliminated an opponent during a convention by getting more than 85 percent of the delegate vote.
Still, DeFranco would be an underdog in a primary challenge to Warren, who is generally viewed as Brown's only significant opponent in a race that has drawn national attention. The race is one of several that could determine control of the US Senate.
DeFranco was defiant Wednesday in her role as the spoiler. Her candidacy will force Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, to focus on an intra-party battle when the state and national Democratic establishment is hoping she can engage Brown.
"If everybody treats a primary as a nuisance, then we should go back to the smoke-filled rooms where they picked the candidate and busted everybody's chops,'' DeFranco said.
"Do we just want to have an anointing? Don't sell people on the fact there's a democratic process and then whine that there is a primary.''
DeFranco said she plans to surpass the 15-percent mark at the convention the same way she collected enough signatures, by drawing on some 40 core volunteers and another 100 who helped out in the signature drive.
"I tell them, just don't pay attention to all the blogs and naysayers,'' she said.
How exactly the Warren campaign feels about having to face a primary fight is not clear. Asked for a comment, spokesman Kyle Sullivan said that Warren congratulates DeFranco, but is "focused on building a strong grass-roots organization across Massachusetts.''
Some Democratic leaders say DeFranco's challenge would hurt Warren because it would divert her from an early campaign against Brown. DeFranco, with her outspoken liberal views, could also force Warren to move further left on the political spectrum and cede some of the moderate ground to Brown.
But Republican strategist Rob Gray said he believes that DeFranco's challenge will be helpful to Warren, because it will provide a forum for her to score a major victory in the September primary, just as a majority of voters are beginning to focus on the US Senate race.
"Any easy primary seven weeks out from a general election for a first-time candidate is a great tune up for campaign organization,'' Gray said. "You get the kinks out of the system before the main event.''
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.