BOSTON -- National Republicans cheered former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez's Massachusetts primary victory, but Democratic Congressman Ed Markey enjoys tremendous advantages in the special election to replace former U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
Tuesday's primary elections set up an eight-week sprint to the June 25 election.
In Markey, the race pits a longtime liberal politician known for environmental advocacy against Gomez, a fresh-faced social moderate with a distinguished biography and untested political skills. On paper, it looks like a competitive contest, but Republicans quietly concede that Markey is the strong favorite in a state where only around 11 percent of voters are registered Republicans.
"As we've shown before in the state, anything can happen in a special election," said Republican strategist Ron Kaufman, Massachusetts' national committeeman.
Indeed, little-known Republican state Sen. Scott Brown stunned Democrats in his 2010 special election U.S. Senate victory in a contest that became a referendum on Obama's health care overhaul. So far, at least, this race has drawn little national interest, even before being overshadowed by the Boston Marathon bombings.
And unlike the last special election, this one will have little bearing on the immediate balance of power in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have an effective 55-45 majority.
But Massachusetts Democratic Party leaders promised they would not repeat the mistakes of the last special contest, when they largely took success for granted.
"We have absolutely learned a lesson. As long as I'm around, we will never leave primary day thinking we're all set," Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh said Tuesday, vowing an aggressive grass-roots strategy to rally Democrats across the state behind Markey.
Gomez, 47, won a three-way primary against former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and state Rep. Daniel Winslow. Markey, 66, a member of Congress for the last 36 years, defeated fellow U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch on the Democratic side.
"This election, ladies and gentleman, will not be easy," Markey said in his primary victory speech, suggesting that national Republicans were prepared to "move mountains of money to buy this election."
Gomez, meanwhile, painted Markey as a longtime Washington insider in a speech that included moments of Spanish. He said he was playing Little League Baseball when Markey was first elected to Congress.
In many ways, Gomez fits the profile of a new brand of politician that Republican leaders are looking for. The Republican National Committee released a report in March calling for better minority outreach and more inclusive tones on immigration and social issues.
Gomez is the son of Columbian immigrants and speaks fluent Spanish. He supports gay marriage, but says it should be decided state by state. He personally opposes abortion, citing his Catholic faith, but hasn't advocated overturning Roe v. Wade.
Over more than three decades in Congress, Markey quietly built a legislative portfolio that included work on energy, telecommunication, national security and the environment. When oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico following an offshore explosion, Markey pushed to make live video footage of the spill available.
The Democrat begins the race with a significant financial advantage. He led all other candidates in fundraising and had won the backing early on of Kerry and a large segment of the Democratic establishment.
Gomez, who launched a career in private equity after leaving the military, has already loaned his campaign at least $600,000.
He has the backing of a so-called super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money. Eric Fehrnstrom, previously a top aide to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, advises the outside group, known as the Committee for a Better Massachusetts.
A handful of Romney's team is playing key roles on Gomez' campaign.
Still, some Republicans in Washington are quietly pessimistic about the race because of the political realities of Massachusetts, where Democrats enjoy a 1-million-voter registration advantage. Unaffiliated voters make up almost 53 percent of the electorate.
Republicans also concede that Gomez isn't always comfortable in the spotlight. Save for an unsuccessful bid for town selectman, he has never run for political office.
"If you're looking for an experienced, slick talking politician, I'm definitely not your guy," Gomez told supporters Tuesday night. "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."
Markey suggested the race could have national implications. "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," he said. "I am ready for that fight."