At a campaign rally for Republican Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez Monday morning, Sen. John McCain didn’t mince his words.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 and Mr. Gomez’s opponent – 18-term Congressman Ed Markey – leads comfortably in early polls, that may be an understatement. Then again, Senator McCain is no stranger to tough campaigns, or to the kind of party-straddling political identity it takes to woo independents in a deep blue state like Massachusetts.
So it’s no accident that it was McCain appearing with Gomez rather than, say, Newt Gingrich, who announced last week that his new political action committee would give $5,000 to the young Republican’s campaign – while also cautioning the military-veteran-turned-investment banker to steer clear of the GOP establishment in Washington.
But standing next to the GOP’s maverick-in-chief, flanked by veterans and wearing his signature green bomber jacket, Gomez could make the case that his would be a personalized and pragmatic brand of Republican politics.
“Senator McCain is part of a gang of eight,” Gomez said, referring to the bipartisan group of senators who've crafted a massive immigration reform bill. “Well, I want to make that gang of eight a gang of nine…. He’s one of the few that reaches across the aisle and I want to support him on that.”
Massachusetts Republicans have always been their own breed – cool-headed, socially centrist, and never totally in lockstep with the national party establishment.
“There’s a real battle going on for the GOP’s soul right now,” says Ray La Raja, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
On the one hand, he says, are the tea party and right-wing hardliners. On the other, there are the McCains and the Gomezes – moderates who speak a language of big-tent Republicanism that they hope will draw in the unsatisfied middle of the American electorate.
And the 47-year-old Gomez – who has never held political office and who donated to Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 – is in many ways emblematic of the new face the moderates would like to put on the party.
He is the child of Colombian immigrants, comfortably speaks the language of military deployments and veterans’ benefits, and finished running this year’s Boston Marathon just minutes before two bombs exploded at the finish line.
“It’s still a dangerous world out there, and I’m not just talking overseas,” he said Monday, recalling his own panic as he struggled to find his family in the aftermath of the Boston attack.
Matters of national security, he said, shouldn’t be partisan. He drew cheers from the audience in this working-class neighborhood as he pledged to keep Americans safe, regardless of who it aligned him with politically.
“He’s not a politician, and that’s breath of fresh air,” says Dorchester resident Barbara Trybe, one of the coveted independents Gomez is trying to swing into his camp. “He’s also a veteran, which is important to me because veterans aren’t wimps. They don’t back down.”
Ms. Trybe and her fellow independents, who make up 52 percent of registered voters in this state, will decide this race – if they turn out, that is.
This is a special election called to fill the Senate seat vacated by now-Secretary of State John Kerry. That’s a type of race that typically has a lower turnout. And those who do vote most reliably in them are the “most ardent partisans,” Mr. La Raja says.
However, for McCain – who knows a thing or two about losing big races – what's important is what the Gomez candidacy reveals about the future direction of the Republican Party, no matter who wins on June 25.
“It may not change a single vote, but I think it’s important for people like me, who believe in people like Gabriel, to come up and do whatever I can to help,” he said. “This is the next generation of leadership in this country.”