In his bid to succeed Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has won support from a slew of Democratic elected official in the state, leaders in Washington and even Vicki Kennedy. But bring up the notion of Markey's inevitability, and Massachusetts Democrats issue a warning: Don't sleep on his underestimated rival, Rep. Stephen Lynch.
Soon after President Obama tapped Kerry to serve as secretary of State, Democrats tried to clear the field for Markey. Within a day of Markey announcing his intention to run, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Kerry and Kennedy all offered up statements of support for the dean of the Massachusetts delegation. The party hoped to avoid an ugly primary fight that could produce a weakened nominee for a potential match-up with former Sen. Scott Brown, who hasn't announced his intentions yet but is reportedly leaning toward running in the special election. One by one, Democrats who had expressed interest in the race, like Rep. Michael Capuano and state Sen. Ben Downing, passed, deferring to Markey. But Lynch, a former ironworker with an independent streak, didn't fall in line, announcing his candidacy Thursday with a three-stop tour of the state. Markey enters the primary fight as the favorite, but plugged-in Bay State Democrats expect Lynch to make things interesting -- and potentially even pull off an upset.
Markey's advantages go beyond his high-profile backers. He had more than $3.1 million in his campaign account as of Nov. 26, according to his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission. Lynch reported having less than a third of what Markey had on hand as of the same date. Markey also sports a reliably-liberal voting record, while Lynch's antiabortion stance and vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 could alienate Democratic primary voters in deep-blue Massachusetts.
But Lynch has his own strengths, starting with a compelling personal narrative. The son of an ironworker and a postal clerk, he grew up in the projects of South Boston. After high school, Lynch followed in his father's footsteps and worked as an ironworker, eventually becoming president of the local union. He eventually put himself through college and law school, and then he launched his political career out of his South Boston neighborhood. Lynch went from the state House to the state Senate to the House of Representatives in less than a decade.
His rapid rise through the ranks was aided by his relationship with labor unions, but his 2010 vote against the president's health care law severely damaged that bond. Later that year, Mac D'Alessandro, a regional political director for the SEIU, challenged Lynch in the Democratic primary, but the congressman ultimately won nearly 65 percent of the vote in earning renomination. Nonetheless, an important question looms over his primary fight with Markey: Has the labor movement forgiven Lynch?
Harris Gruman, the executive director of the SEIU Massachusetts State Council, acknowledged that Lynch's health care vote could still be an issue with some members. But he said that Lynch's opposition to subsequent GOP efforts to repeal the law have healed some of those wounds, and labor leaders haven't forgotten Lynch's otherwise long record of supporting union causes.
"I think being focused on future issues is really going to be the key -- things that are in play now," Gruman said. "We have to think forward, like who would make the best senator. And that's a judgment on many levels."
Lynch knows how important support from organized labor could be to his candidacy: He held his official campaign kickoff Thursday afternoon at the Ironworkers Union Hall in South Boston, invoking his family's long history of involvement with unions in his speech. If labor coalesces around Lynch's bid, it could provide a powerful counterbalance to the establishment support already in Markey's corner. Lynch's team is hopeful that the health care vote won't keep potential labor allies on the sidelines.
"At the end of the day, Stephen Lynch is an ironworker and was a president of a union," said Scott Ferson, a consultant working on Lynch's campaign.
There is speculation in Massachusetts that Lynch could get significant help from another powerful political entity: Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Lynch represents South Boston in Congress, while Markey's district covers areas to the north and west of the city. Menino has said he's not endorsing for now, but some Massachusetts Democrats privately wonder whether he'll eventually come out for the hometown candidate, especially if the mayor opts to seek a sixth term this year. Even without an official endorsement, behind-the-scenes help from Menino's political operation would be a boon for Lynch's get-out-the-vote efforts in the Hub.
In a campaign in which neither candidate is particularly well-known statewide, Lynch can fall back on his reputation as a tireless campaigner. Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh warned not to underestimate "how hard he's going to work and how aggressive he's going to be." Markey has been a member of Congress since 1976 and hasn't had to face many competitive challenges in his decades in office. He announced his candidacy in late December, but his campaign has been relatively quiet in the last month. His website consists only of a landing page seeking contributions.
Markey also will have to deal with questions about his residency. While he owns his childhood house in Malden and continues to use it as his voting address, Markey and his wife also have a home in Chevy Chase, Md., a suburb of Washington. Brown has raised the issue in a local radio interview earlier this month, suggesting that Markey no longer lives in the state. Lynch has said he'll run a positive campaign, but early indications are he'll try to paint Markey as a creature of Washington. Asked about Markey during a stop in Springfield on Thursday, Lynch said, "You can’t get any more inside."
That characterization lends itself to what the Lynch campaign views as perhaps its ultimate selling point: the argument that Lynch is the more electable general election candidate. To win statewide, Brown needs the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. Lynch's supporters argue that he has a better chance of holding onto those voters than the more liberal Markey, whom Brown would also paint as the ultimate Washington insider.
Process arguments like that are notoriously difficult to sell to voters, and local Democrats caution that Lynch will have to raise a lot of money before the April 30 primary to compete with Markey. The list of reasons to doubt Lynch's chances are long, but those who have followed his career aren't counting him out.
"He's always underestimated," Marsh said. "Yet every race he's ever gotten into, he's won."