Gabriel Gomez is an ambitious guy. In January, with Massachusetts senator John Kerry all but certain to be confirmed as secretary of state, the 47-year-old Gomez wrote a letter to Governor Deval Patrick. Between Kerry’s resignation and the special election to fill his seat in the Senate, Patrick, a Democrat, would need to nominate a temporary replacement. Though a lifelong Republican, Gomez tried to appeal to Patrick’s sense of bipartisanship and asked the governor to choose him.
“Appointing a moderate Republican would set a national example of sorely needed bipartisanship and would reinforce your growing national reputation for bold and thoughtful leadership,” Gomez wrote. He cited his years of military service, Latino heritage, and moderate views. He promised to “serve [his] time” in the Senate, if appointed, and then “move along” and not get involved in the special election. He even promised to support President Obama on immigration and gun control.
It was a bold move, but it didn’t sway Patrick. Instead, he appointed his former chief of staff and fellow Democrat Mo Cowan to replace Kerry. Still, Gomez is used to aiming high and hitting his mark, which is likely why he’s now running for the Senate seat outright in the June 25 special election. The odds aren’t much better for a Republican to be voted into the Senate from Massachusetts than they are for one to be appointed by a Democratic governor. If past is prologue, however, Gomez’s ambition could pay off.
The son of Colombian immigrants who settled first in Los Angeles, Gomez grew up in what he calls a “typical middle-class lifestyle” in Washington state. He played sports—basketball, soccer, baseball—and, in his words, “excelled” in school, enough to earn an appointment to the Naval Academy. He excelled there, too, graduating with merit. He proceeded to flight school, got his wings, and became an aircraft carrier pilot. That’s a crowning achievement, as far as a military career goes.
But Gomez needed more. He wanted to join the Navy SEALs, the elite special operations force with arguably the most selective and rigorous military training program in the world. It was a risk for Gomez to take the plunge.
“The Navy told me if I didn’t make it through, I wouldn’t be able to go back and fly. I’d lose my pilot status,” Gomez says.
He did make it through and joined SEAL Team Four, becoming one of just two men in history to serve both as an aircraft carrier pilot and a SEAL. Gomez met his wife, Sarah, then a Peace Corps volunteer, while deployed in the West Indies and married her in 1996 after leaving the military. But he kept pushing himself, enrolling at Harvard for business school, which took him and his young family to the Boston area. After a short stint at Erskine Bowles’s investment firm in Charlotte, Gomez has lived in Massachusetts with his wife and four kids since 2001.
Now, Gomez is taking on his toughest challenge yet: running in Massachusetts as a Republican. According to Real Clear Politics, he’s trailing his Democratic opponent, 66-year-old House veteran Ed Markey, by just under 9 points. A recent internal poll suggested the margin was tighter, with Gomez only 3 points down.
Bay State Republicans are hoping for a replay of the last Senate special election, in early 2010, when their nominee Scott Brown shocked the political world by defeating Democrat Martha Coakley, a veteran of statewide politics who had been thought a shoo-in. Coakley wasn’t a terrible candidate, but she ran a bad campaign, and Brown took advantage of the growing dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s health care legislation to ride an anti-establishment wave into the Senate.
Despite attempts in the media to label him as such, Gabriel Gomez isn’t the next Scott Brown. Brown had served in local and state elected office for two decades before running for Senate and is a skilled and gifted politician, a charming populist whose moderate politics were competitive in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
Gomez is a political novice, and it shows. In our interview, he repeatedly referred to Kentucky Republican Rand Paul as “Senator Rand.” He can lean heavily on talking points (his go-to line on questions about immigration reform is, “I’m with Marco Rubio on this”). After winning the three-way Republican primary with 51 percent of the vote, he began his acceptance speech a little haltingly.
“Now Congress is full of politicians. Washington has enough politicians,” Gomez said, his cadence not quite right. “And if you send another one down there, you’re going to get the same result.” There was a brief pause while Gomez looked down at his notes. It wasn’t immediately clear to his supporters that this was an applause line, so they were slow to start clapping.
Gomez embraces his awkwardness. A minute later in his speech, he made his pitch, leaning in toward the microphone with a roguish grin. “If you’re lookin’ for an experienced, slick-talkin’ politician, I’m definitely not your guy,” he said.
That’s self-deprecating, of course, but it’s also a shot at Gomez’s opponent. Markey is a 37-year veteran of the House, a liberal’s liberal who has all the well-heeled, left-wing positions of Ted Kennedy with little of Kennedy’s working-class appeal. (Last week, Markey disinvited his former House colleague Georgia Democrat Ben Jones from a D.C. fundraiser because of Jones’s outspoken support of the Confederate flag. Jones, the actor who played “Cooter” on The Dukes of Hazzard, told the Boston Globe that it wasn’t his old friend Markey but a staffer who actually made the call.)
Early in his congressional career, Markey was known as an anti-nuclear environmentalist. More recently, he’s staked out territory in the realm of telecommunications regulatory policy, and, as the Almanac of American Politics states, he’s “often inclined toward deregulation, though he can just as often be found siding with consumers.” Regardless, some of his biggest donations come from the entertainment and telecom services industries. Gomez’s goal is to cast Markey as a partisan insider who’s spent too much time in Washington.
“Congressman Markey’s been down there for 37 years, and he’s left of the left,” Gomez says. “He will just not be somebody who is going to represent all the people of Massachusetts and reach across the aisle and work with the other side.”
Markey won big in the Democratic primary, but the bitter fight against his fellow congressman, the more blue-collar Stephen Lynch, left some traditional Democrats feeling cold toward their nominee. The Gomez campaign is looking to peel off these voters by emphasizing his independence and his willingness to work with Democrats. It’s a tactic that’s worked well for the few Republicans who have won statewide in Massachusetts in recent years, Scott Brown and Mitt Romney chief among them. Gomez, who speaks Spanish, is also trying to find new supporters among Greater Boston’s Hispanic community.
What Gomez may be missing, however, is a conservative issue or two around which he can rally his Republican supporters. In late 2009 and early 2010, Scott Brown argued he could be the vote to stop Obamacare in the Senate, and he criticized the Obama administration’s response to the failed Christmas Day 2009 terrorist bombing attempt. Gomez, who crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon just minutes before the bombs there exploded, told me he doesn’t think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should have been read his Miranda rights so quickly. Gomez supports the Senate immigration proposal and says he would vote for another gun background check amendment like the one that failed last month. He also says he opposes many of the economically damaging elements of Obamacare, though he’s mixed on the idea of repeal.
“I guess ideally you could repeal it and start over because you have certain components obviously that people agree on,” Gomez says. “Preexisting conditions is just one of them. But if you can’t repeal it, you have to face the fact that we have to fix it and we have to address some of these issues like the medical device tax, among others. You can’t leave it as is.”
It’s not quite a pledge to be the deciding vote against Obamacare, but then this is a state that just voted to reelect Obama and threw out Brown in favor of his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. With Gomez already within striking distance of Markey, maybe simply being the Massachusetts moderate will be enough. ♦
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.