He may just be the second coming of Florida senator Marco Rubio – with machine guns.
Gabriel Gomez, who won the GOP Senate primary in Massachusetts earlier this week, is a fresh-faced pro-life Latino Republican who just so happens to be a former Navy SEAL. At a time when Massachusetts — to say nothing of the rest of the country — is still reeling from the Boston marathon bombings, the candidacy of a charismatic military warrior and successful businessman may well have struck a nerve with the state’s voters. Gomez came out of nowhere and defeated two far-better known GOP candidates, capturing both the Tea party vote as well as support from party moderates.
Prior to Gomez’ s stunning double-digit victory, Democrats had been waxing confident about filling the Senate seat vacated by John Kerry. Democrats are still smarting from Republican Scott Brown’s upset win in 2009, which sent shock waves across the political spectrum, and helped fueled the rise of the Tea party to national prominence. Now, the surprise Gomez win has upset the applecart once again.
Of course, no one knows how well Gomez will actually stack up against Markey in what is likely to be a hard-fought campaign between now and the June 25 general election. A poll taken in mid-April had Markey up 51-36 over Gomez, but at the time Gomez wasn’t well-known and wasn’t expected to win. Publicly, Democrats remain confident, but privately Markey and his aides are rattled. Already, Gomez is generating considerable political buzz.
For Republicans, Gomez’s appearance on the scene continues a trend of Republican Latino newcomers surging to the national spotlight. Rubio, who won in 2010, has emerged as a top GOP figure with 2016 presidential ambitions. So has ultra-conservative Texas senator ted Cruz, who is exploring a presidential bid of his own.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ only Latino Senator, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, is facing a damaging ethics inquiry that could well ruin his political career. The only other major national Latino political figures who are Democrats, Antonio Villaraigosa and Julian Castro, are both mayors.
Republicans are placing heavy emphasis on recruiting and supporting Latino political candidates. Ed Gillespie, a veteran of the Bush-Rove years, is spearheading the promotion of candidates like Gomez to try to reposition the GOP with Latino voters, and to regain the political ground lost since Bush won more than 40% of the Latino vote in 2004. Two of the nation’s Latino governors, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, are both Republicans, who, like Rubio, and a half dozen members of the House, were elected in 2010.
And yet, despite their electoral surge, it remains unclear if the GOP can use its candidates to attract large numbers of Latino voters. Martinez, Rubio, Cruz and Sandoval have all garnered more than 40% of the Latino vote in past state elections, outperforming their Anglo Republican counterparts. However, still saddled with their national party’s anti-immigrant reputation, and hostile to policies like Obamacare that Latinos broadly support, the ability of candidates like Gomez, who is also staunchly pro-life, to attract significant Latino support at the national level remains in doubt. In fact, polls show that most of these figures, despite their growing media buzz, remain largely unknown to most Latino voters.
Markey clearly has a distinct advantage as the campaign gets underway next week, and the two men prepare for the first of a series of televised debates. The political climate in Massachusetts has changed dramatically since Brown’s earlier upset victory in a special election 2010. Moreover, Markey, unlike Brown’s competitor in that race, is the state’s longest running elected official and an effective campaigner.
But Gomez, whose parents are Colombian immigrants, has, like Rubio, a compelling second-generation Latino success story. In the primary campaign, despite his MBA from Harvard, he projected a common-man’s image, telling viewers during a debate: “I am just like you.” Like Brown in 2010, he’ll have to keep the Tea party wing of the party mobilized while swaying independents and at least some Democrats to the view that they should choose him rather than have the state represented by two liberals.
Expect the Democrats, meanwhile to play on Gomez’s staunch pro-life stances – and opposition to Planned Parenthood — to staunch the defection of moderate women who helped catapult Elizabeth Warren to victory over Brown. One key question is whether the Obama White House will weigh in heavily in this race. Disaffection with Obama is growing, and a Gomez win could have the similar catalytic effect on the GOP that Brown’s victory did in 2010.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org