Who's the Next John Kerry?

Yesterday Massachusetts held a primary for the June special election to fill new Secretary of State John Kerry's senate seat. Roughly four people turned out to vote in my district, with a total of 153 voters statewide. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There were four people in my polling place when I went in to vote, at 5:30 pm—a time when, were it a presidential election, the line would be down the block. As I write this, The Boston Globe is reporting an estimated 10 percent turnout. My guess is that that the number of people who were aware of the fact that the primary was yesterday, compared to the number of Massachusetts residents aware of the first names of both marathon bombers, was roughly 1:100.

We’ve had a rough few weeks here in Boston, as I know you’ve heard. While the rest of the country has—rightly—moved on to the next public event, we’re going to be stuck on this one for some time. But even were this the most neutral of times, a special-election primary is a pretty sleepy deal, unless there’s an electrifying candidate or two. This time there were none.

On the Democratic side, there were two Congressman facing off for the senatorial nomination. There's Stephen Lynch of South Boston, a former ironworker, an anti-abortion voter, the favorite of the he-man unions and the more conservative Democrats. He was roasted at the traditional St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast in South Boston as having been born in a manger that he welded himself. Ed Markey is, on paper, the progressive, congressional veteran who’s lived in Massachusetts representing his district since 1976, a staunch advocate for action on climate change and for VAWA. In person he comes across as stiff, arrogant, and anything but likable. But the pro-Warren faction of Democrats turned out for him; here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, my house must’ve been flyered by Markey folks at least six separate times, each one reminding us to vote. Lynch won the “red” parts of the state, which had added up to only 43 percent of the Dem vote as of last night at 11 p.m.; Markey won the blue districts, with 57 percent.

Since our former senator Scott Brown declined to run, the Republican side of the race was wide open—and went to Gabriel Gomez, who on paper looks like a picture-perfect William Weld-style Republican. While his parents immigrated from Colombia, he’s white, the kind of Latino whose children will be highly assimilated; his Spanish is the upper-class kind. He was a Navy SEAL, a Harvard Business School grad, and a private-equity investor with enough money to bankroll plenty of television ads. He’ll run against the national Republicans and for bipartisanship, stressing the pro-gun-control and immigration-reform issues where he sides with Obama; it’s the only way for an “R” to win in this state.

So can he win? Until the day that Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown, the state Democratic party activists took it for granted that whoever won the Democratic primary had won the election. They learned their lesson. They will be out knocking on doors and taking names between now and June 25, when the election will be held. And Massachusetts Dems can out-organize Massachusetts Republicans hands down. The Massachusetts Democratic Party has 47 field offices and a deep organizing infrastructure that’s still stinging from the Coakley loss and invigorated from the intense effort they put in to win it for Elizabeth Warren. By contrast, the Massachusetts Republican Party is nearly a theory; it has ten field offices and few grassroots volunteers. Markey won’t inspire folks to come out of the woodwork the way Warren did—no one could—but neither is there any evidence that Gomez is driving around the state inspiring potential voters the way Brown did. Warren will work for Markey, and her coattails matter. It’s hard for me to picture who can do that for Gomez.

There are still unknowns. Will Markey’s lack of charisma and decades out of state hurt him? Will Gomez’s Navy SEAL background work for him at a moment when Massachusetts is still aching from the bomb blasts? The local media and likely voters should be tuning into the race sometime soon, but the vast majority of the state won’t get engaged. The trial of Whitey Bulger, who tormented the eastern part of the state for decades, and the ongoing Marathon bombing drama will dominate the news—and overshadow the election. Since any race comes down to turnout—whose voters actually have the energy or enthusiasm to show up?— my guess at this distance is that the Massachusetts Dems’ organizing structure will win the day for Markey. But stay tuned.

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