By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A Democratic Massachusetts lawmaker who has spent more than three decades in Congress will face off against a Republican who is a political novice and former Navy SEAL in the race to fill the state's open U.S. Senate seat.
Primary voters on Tuesday picked Democrat Ed Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez as their candidates in the June 25 special election, the second such race the state has seen in three years.
A Gomez victory could help Republicans move toward their goal of retaking a majority in the Senate, where they currently have 45 seats. There are 53 Democrats and two independents.
Markey was the first candidate to enter the race and polls showed him with a solid lead against all potential Republican opponents. Gomez's result was more of a surprise as a better-known rival, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, led in earlier polls.
While Democratic candidates typically enjoy a strong advantage in liberal-leaning Massachusetts, Markey and his party still have vivid memories of the state's last special U.S. Senate election three years ago when Republican Scott Brown upset state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"Gomez's nomination adds an element of uncertainty," said Peter Ubertaccio, a professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. "He's a newcomer who has pulled off a very interesting victory and has money, and that is going to add an element of unpredictability to the general election."
THE BATTLE BEGINS
The two nominees immediately turned their fire one another.
Markey told a crowd of cheering supporters that if elected to the Senate he would continue to stand up for hot-button liberal issues including gun control and access to abortion, and sought to tie his rival to the national Republican Party.
"The Republican Super PACs see this election as their first shot at stopping President (Barack) Obama's agenda," Markey said. "Mark my words, these outside special interests are going to march right into Massachusetts beginning tomorrow morning."
Gomez, meanwhile, portrayed himself as more independent, saying he supported term limits for elected officials.
"If you're looking for an independent voice, a new kind of Republican, take a look at our campaign," Gomez said.
Turnout was light in an off-cycle election that came a little more than two weeks after a bombing attack at the Boston Marathon that caused all five candidates to pause their campaigns and knocked the election off the front pages of local papers.
Markey was first elected to the House in 1976. He is ranking member of the chamber's Natural Resources Committee and outspoken on environmental issues.
Born of Colombian immigrants, Gomez's first language was Spanish. He entered the military after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and became a pilot before entering SEAL training. After leaving the Navy in 1996, he went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and joined private equity firm Advent International.
The seat became available when John Kerry became the U.S. Secretary of State. Democrat Kerry had served as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts since 1985.
Markey bested fellow Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch, while Gomez faced State Representative Daniel Winslow, as well as Sullivan.
Gomez drew criticism from his primary rivals for having written a letter to the state's Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, asking to be appointed to the seat on an interim basis.
Patrick instead tapped his former chief of staff, William Cowan, who serves as interim senator and did not enter the race.
The winner of the June vote will serve alongside the state's current senior Senator, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who last year unseated Brown.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool, Philip Barbara and Lisa Shumaker)