When Republican Gabriel Gomez stepped onstage at Boston’s Seaport Hotel to concede the US Senate race in Massachusetts to Democrat Edward Markey Tuesday night, he compared the campaign he had just waged with his former career as a Navy SEAL.
“In the military you learn early on that not every fight is a fair fight,” he said. “Sometimes you face overwhelming force.”
That force, in this case, was the Massachusetts Democratic Party. The organization has had an ax to grind against Republicans in Senate races since 2010, when GOP nominee Scott Brown unexpectedly defeated Democrat Martha Coakley, cutting short three decades of unbroken Democratic control of the state’s two Senate seats.
But the Democrats quickly bounced back, routing Senator Brown in 2012 and ensuring that Mr. Markey outraised, outspent, and out-organized Mr. Gomez at every step of this campaign to fill John Kerry’s former seat.
And Tuesday night, they emerged victorious. Markey won the race by a 10-point margin, 55 percent to 45 percent, in a fight that seemed at times to play out on an empty battlefield.
In the state’s fourth US Senate election in five years, the candidates repeatedly failed to capture the imagination of a public riveted by the Boston Marathon bombings, the Boston Bruins’ bid for the Stanley Cup, and the trial of reputed Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
Only 27 percent of eligible Massachusetts voters cast a ballot in Tuesday's election, a record low that fell short of even the secretary of State’s pessimistic prediction that a third of voters would go to the polls. The special election Brown won in 2010, by comparison, had a 54 percent turnout.
For Markey, however, that hardly mattered Tuesday night, as he faced a crowd of cheering supporters at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston.
“I am deeply humbled and I am profoundly grateful,” he said. “This election is about your hopes, your dreams, your families, your future – I know that and I’m going to remember that.”
A plodding campaigner and often a bland speaker, Markey is unlikely to become the state’s next powerhouse Democratic senator in the mold of Mr. Kerry or Edward Kennedy, who held his seat here for 46 years.
But over the 37 years Markey has represented the Fifth Congressional District, he has amassed a hefty record as an advocate for environmental, energy, and telecommunications policy. And perhaps most important to the stream of Democratic heavyweights who rallied for his senatorial campaign – Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden among them – he has long been a rigidly reliable Democratic vote.
As the confetti settled at Markey’s victory party, however, he was already looking forward. In just 17 months, he will be back on the ballot here to seek a full term.
“2014 is a different animal,” says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.
For starters, he notes, that election will include other significant races, including an open contest for governor. That will create the momentum to draw a significantly wider and more energized group of voters to the polls.
And nationally, 2014 is a year in which the Republican Party hopes to make an assault on the Senate's Democratic majority, using dissatisfaction with the Obama administration to sweep in enough GOP legislators to take control of the Senate.
Given the fact that Markey’s victory was not the blowout some expected, the national Republican Party could be willing to devote resources to next year’s campaign in Massachusetts, if the right candidate throws a hat in the ring, says Massachusetts Republican political strategist Frederick Van Magness.
“Ed Markey is totally beatable,” says Mr. Van Magness, who is not affiliated with the Gomez campaign. “He’s had 37 years [in Congress] to define himself for voters, but he still spent this entire election explaining who he is. That shows he’s vulnerable.”
But persuading a credible and popular Republican to run against Markey will be another story.
After all, to win as a Republican in this fiercely Democratic state, “you have to run basically a perfect election, and have a little luck on your side,” Van Magness says.
For that reason, state Republicans have a shallow field to draw from. Many hope that Brown, now a commentator for Fox News, will use 2014 as his reentry point into politics. And Gomez himself has already floated the idea that he may run again.
“I'm confident I'm going to win,” he told "Fox News Sunday" this week. “But as a famous general once said in World War II, I shall return.”
A Latino military veteran with a centrist stance on issues like abortion, gun control, and immigration, Gomez cut a compelling profile on the campaign trail, but ultimately failed to rally significant Republican support beyond Bay State borders.
Special-interest money in the campaign skewed overwhelmingly in favor of Markey, who received about $4.7 million in campaign contributions from political action committees and other outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. Gomez, by contrast, received $1.7 million, the vast majority of it from a single donor in California under the auspices of a "super PAC" called Americans for Progressive Action.
As Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” boomed from the ballroom speakers after Gomez’s concession speech Tuesday night, supporter Dan Edmonds said that without the cash, the race was a losing battle from the start.
“If he raised more money, he might have done it,” he said. “The Democrats have the machine, but we put up a good fight.”