The first thing Gabriel Gomez likes to tell crowds on the campaign trail is where he’s going – the United States Senate. The second is where he’s coming from.
When his parents immigrated from Colombia five decades ago, he said at a rally this week in Boston, “never in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that their oldest son would graduate from the United States Naval Academy. Only in America could that even have been a possibility – or come true.”
There are many ways to look at the candidacy of Mr. Gomez, the Republican running for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat in Massachusetts – as a moderate, a maverick, a Washington outsider, an underdog.
But some hope he may be even more than that: a new face for the Republican Party.
“He’s offering a contrast to the rhetoric the party campaigned on in 2012, which was very anti-immigrant, very anti-working class,” says Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-founder of the political research firm Latino Decisions. “This is the kind of guy who could breathe new life into the party, and whether or not he can win, [the GOP needs] to be front and center in this race to say, this is what we’re all about.”
And there are signs the GOP may be doing just that. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) announced this week that it would commit at least four staffers to the Massachusetts race, quieting pundit doubt that the national party had already declared its candidate down for the count.
Two fundraisers, a volunteer organizer, and a communications point person from the NRSC will join the Gomez team in the sprint to the June 25 special election against Edward Markey, an 18-term Democratic congressman.
That should help Gomez overcome one of his most glaring deficits: money. Representative Markey has nearly $5 million in the bank, while Gomez had just $500,000 earlier this month.
To be sure, Gomez is hardly the first Hispanic GOP candidate. Several other high-profile Republican Latinos – including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and and Brian Sandoval of Nevada – have been elected recently.
But Gomez comes at a particularly crucial time for the GOP, which has been considering ways to repair its image among Latinos after the party took a beating in the 2012 elections.
In the US, Latinos make up 10 percent of voters, and their numbers are expected to double within the next two decades, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That presents a conundrum for Republicans, who have built a chunk of their base in recent years through measures to curb immigration and secure the US border.
“There’s definitely a place for a conservative message [on non-immigration issues] within the Latino community,” Professor Barreto says. “The problem is that when that message is being delivered by an older middle-class white person who’s also taking an anti-immigrant stance, it’s hard to listen to.”
Enter Gomez, a clean-cut Navy SEAL who grew up speaking Spanish at home and says he wants to make the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” which has been working on immigration reform, a “gang of nine.”
“I know I can count on his vote for immigration reform that will help bring 11 million people out of the shadows,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona – one of the Gang of Eight – at a rally of Gomez supporters this week.
That may have appeal to Massachusetts’ Latino voters, who make up about 6 percent of the electorate in the state.
“Latinos don’t just vote for a party; they vote for values,” says Luzmar Centeno-Valerio, programs coordinator at Oiste, a civic education organization that works with Latino voters in Massachusetts.
Gomez, she says, gets an automatic leg up among potential Latino voters for his cultural and language ties, but she notes that he’ll still have to pound the pavement and do his share of hand-shaking and baby-kissing if he wants to win their support.
After all, Massachusetts Latinos are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. In the 2012 Senate race between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown, Ms. Warren won 86 percent of the Latino vote.
“Across the country, Democrats are seen as the party that has more concern for Latino voters,” says Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. But the reputation isn’t set in stone, with Hispanics supporting other recent Latino GOP candidates.
“They need a Gomez in every state,” Barreto says. The GOP has "to be able to live with having a more diverse and more moderate group of candidates, because the alternative is the Democrats just win everything.”