Massachusetts Republicans will decide in an April 30th primary their choice of a nominee for the Senate seat vacated by John Kerry.
Republicans appear to be coalescing around former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, an unabashed social and economic conservative with strong credentials in fighting crime and terrorism.
Sullivan currently leads in polls in a three man race against private equity investor and political novice Gabriel Gomez and state Rep. Daniel Winslow. The winner will oppose the Democratic primary victor, either Rep. Ed Markey or Rep. Stephen Lynch.
Although odds makers rate the chances on a Republican winning the special election on June 25 as modest, the choice could send a powerful message about the current nature of Republicanism.
Coupled with the attention focused on Massachusetts following the Boston explosions, that message could reverberate nationwide.
When the race commenced, all Republican eyes were on Gabriel Gomez. State Republican National Committee members Ron Kaufman and Kerry Healey, a former lieutenant governor who served with Mitt Romney, embraced the successful venture capitalist and former Navy SEAL.
But the Boston Herald uncovered a letter that Gomez wrote to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick earlier this year seeking temporary appointment to Kerry’s seat before the special election.
In the letter, Gomez admitted to voting for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and said he supported the president on issues such as gun control and immigration reform.
Not exactly a message likely to woo Republican primary voters — not even in Massachusetts.
Winslow is considered a “fiscal conservative and social moderate” — the combination embraced by several Republicans who managed to win in increasingly Democratic New England.
Once a legal counsel to the former governor, Winslow had the backing of many “Team Romney” veterans and of Barbara Anderson, long-time leader of the state’s largest anti-tax group.
Had Winslow just kept quiet, he might be the front-runner now.
But, in burnishing his “social moderate” credentials, Winslow told WCVB-TV that the Republican Party “deserved to lose” if it nominated a pro-life candidate for the Senate.
He also recently addressed a rally calling for the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act.
With less than two weeks to go before the GOP primary, there is increasing Republican interest in Sullivan.
A former three-term state representative and two-term district attorney of Plymouth County, Sullivan also served as U.S. Attorney and acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) under President George W. Bush.
“I’m running because I believe our greatest risk is the national debt, and we need to invest in national security and support a shrinking government sector,” Sullivan told me, sounding the standard Republican fiscal position.
But he also describes himself as pro-life “without caveats,” a “traditionalist” on marriage, and a supporter of the Second Amendment.
Among his backers are Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the conservative grassroots Massachusetts Republican Assembly, Sullivan said.
Sullivan has been mentioned as a candidate for governor or U.S. senator for years without actually making the race. When he became the last of the major candidates to get in the Senate race, skeptics felt the 58-year-old Sullivan might be running past his time.
But they began to change their tune upon realizing that Sullivan is the product of a genuine draft by conservative grassroots supporters.
Sullivan decided to run after volunteers collected about 30,000 signatures to put him on the ballot, far more than the 10,000 signatures that need to be certified. Winslow and Gomez paid the fee required for ballot access.
“We are now the only campaign running exclusively with volunteers and on the strength of organization,” Sullivan said.
A poll last month by WBUR showed Sullivan with a healthy lead, with 28 percent, compared to 10 percent for Winslow and 8 percent for Gomez. But 46 percent of the respondents were still undecided.
Not so long ago, a Republican like Sullivan would have been considered out of the question in a state where the terms “liberal” and “Republican” were mutually inclusive.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Leverett Saltonstall, and Ed Brooke were all GOP senators from the Bay State, and all were decidedly liberal Republicans.
But as recently at 2010, Scott Brown — a moderate-conservative who ran on a platform of opposing Obamacare — won a special election for the seat of Ted Kennedy.
Sullivan may not win the special election for Kerry’s seat over the Democrat in June. But should he emerge from the primary in two weeks with the Republican nomination, it will be a development that will surely catch the attention of Republican activists nationwide.
John Gizzi is a special political columnist for Newsmax.com.
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