Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey and Republican former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez won their party primaries on Tuesday, setting up a race between a 36-year veteran of Washington politics and a political newcomer for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by John Kerry.
Markey, of Malden, defeated fellow U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, of South Boston, in the Democratic primary while Gomez, a Cohasset businessman, bested former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and state Rep. Daniel Winslow in the GOP primary, according to unofficial returns. The special election is scheduled for June 25.
The race to fill the seat Kerry left to become U.S. secretary of state has been overshadowed by the deadly Boston Marathon bombing, and the candidates had to temporarily suspend their campaigns.
Even before the April 15 bombing, the campaign had failed to capture the attention of voters compared with the 2010 special election following the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. Former Republican Sen. Scott Brown won the seat, surprising Democrats, but was ousted last year in another high-profile race by Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Markey, 66, led all the other candidates in fundraising and had won the backing early on of Kerry and a large segment of the Democratic establishment, compared to the 58-year-old Lynch, a conservative, self-described "pro-life" Democrat and former ironworker who was dogged in part by his decision to vote against President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law.
Markey, in his speech to supporters Tuesday, ticked off a series of his accomplishments during more than three decades in Congress and warned that the national Republican supporters of Gomez are ready to "move mountains of money to buy this election for big oil, and the NRA, and those who want to turn back the clock on women's rights."
"This campaign is about standing up to the special interests and the extreme tea party Republicans who want to stop progress and send our country in the wrong direction. I am ready for that fight," he said.
Lynch told disappointed supporters that he was proud of standing up for working men and women.
Gomez quickly seized on the contrast between the veteran Markey and his own political newcomer status. He noted that in 1976, when Markey was first elected to Congress, Gerald Ford was president, the Internet had not been invented, eight-track recordings were popular and he was playing Little League baseball.
"If you're looking for an experienced, slick talking politician, I'm definitely not your guy," Gomez told supporters.
"If you are looking for an independent voice, a new kind of Republican, take a look at our campaign and I'd welcome your support," he said.
Gomez, 47, the son of Colombian immigrants, celebrated his outsider status, wearing his lack of Washington experience as a badge of honor. Gomez also had a compelling life story, learning to speak English in kindergarten before going on to become a Navy pilot and SEAL, earn an MBA at Harvard Business School and launch a career in private equity.
Gomez cast himself as the new face of the Republican Party, which has struggled to reach out to minority populations following the defeat last year of GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Gomez launched his victory speech in Spanish, as he did in campaign ads and on the stump in a state where Hispanic voters are a small but growing slice of the population.
In the Republican campaign he overcame a controversy over a letter he sent to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in January in which he asked to be appointed interim U.S. senator and said he supported Obama's gun control and immigration policies.
Sullivan, an early favorite among conservative Republicans, touted his law enforcement and national security background, having helped investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the failed attempt to blow up an airliner using shoe bombs.
But the 58-year-old Abington resident collected the smallest amount of campaign contributions of the three GOP candidates and was unable to run any statewide TV ads.
"I really thought we were going to pull this off. We didn't, but that's OK," Sullivan told disappointed supporters, vowing to throw his support behind Gomez.
Winslow, 54, a former judge from Norfolk who served as chief legal counsel in Romney's administration, finished third despite putting more than $150,000 of his own cash into the race.
"I came into the race thinking I could mop the floor with Gabriel Gomez," Winslow said Tuesday. "I was proven wrong."
While Gomez easily outraised his challengers he also loaned his campaign at least $600,000.
Markey called on Gomez to sign the so-called "People's Pledge" that Brown and Warren signed during their Senate contest last year designed to discourage television, radio and Internet ads by outside groups.
The primary campaign, part of the third U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts in the past four years, was marked in part by the relatively low voter turnout. That turnout was likely hampered by the marathon bombing and the search for the bombers, which consumed the attention of residents across Massachusetts.
"There are a lot of people who are still down and not wanting to participate in things," said Holly Zaitchik, a retired Boston University professor, after casting her vote for Markey in Wayland. "It's disheartening."
Gomez supporters said they were hopeful he would have as much or more appeal to Democrats and independents as Brown did in his first Senate campaign.
"He's even fresher than Scott Brown. It will be difficult but doable," said Jami Gregory, 50, of Hingham.
Richard Heos, an independent from Woburn, will also be on the June 25 ballot.
Patrick named his former chief of staff, William "Mo" Cowan, to fill Kerry's seat on an interim basis until after the special election.
Associated Press writers Tracee Herbaugh in Abington, Amy Crawford in Cohasset and Jim Morrison in Boston contributed to this report.