Stephen Lynch is no Scott Brown -- for starters, he lacks the men's catalog good looks and the R next to his name. But the Democratic congressman running for John Kerry's Senate seat hopes voters will see in him what they admire about the defeated senator: A common-man touch, a pragmatic approach and an ability to connect with moderate working-class voters.
There's also this: Brown stunned the Democratic establishment three years ago in a special election no one thought he could win. Now Lynch is trying to do the same -- against long but not impossible odds -- by taking on his party's candidate of choice, longtime Rep. Ed Markey.
After Brown's decision this month not to run for the Massachusetts seat -- he would have been a slight favorite to win -- the showdown between the two Democrats is expected to decide Kerry's successor.
Markey has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Ted Kennedy's widow and Kerry himself. He's been in Congress since 1976 and has more than $3 million in the bank, compared to Lynch's $760,000 as of the end of 2012.
But it's been decades since Markey had a tough race, and he's not inevitable. Lynch, whose record includes votes against abortion rights and Obamacare, boasts a history of upsets, relying on support from labor and the kind of conservative-minded, ancestral Democrats who powered Brown's 2010 upset win against Martha Coakley.
Lynch thinks Brown not running gives him a big boost.
"If it looks like the main event is going to be the Democratic primary, there will be more people piling into the election," he told POLITICO.
A majority of the 4 million registered voters in the state are independents. These "unenrolled" voters can vote in either party's primary on April 30. Just over one-third of voters are Democrats, but only 11 percent are Republicans.
"A lot of those so-called independents are really moderate Democrats," Lynch said.
Lynch has a powerful personal story. He grew up in the housing projects in South Boston, got a job as an ironworker and joined the same union as his dad, eventually running it. He put himself through law school before entering politics.
Massachusetts Democratic Chairman John Walsh, who is staying neutral, welcomed a primary fight.
"He's never lost a race, but he's never entered a race that he wasn't supposed to lose," Walsh said of Lynch. "I understand that there are certain measurements where you would say Markey has some advantage. They're undeniable, but I suspect this will be a competitive primary -- which I like. These two guys are going to spend the next 79 days activating new Democrats for us."
Walsh said that in the old days a few dozen party leaders might have been able to sway the election for Markey. Now it comes down to 20,000 or 30,000 activists.
Endorsements help, he said, but "the real challenge and skill that's needed is finding those organizers, cobbling them together, giving them the resources."
"People here love John Kerry. I wouldn't be disrespectful of his support," Walsh added, "but I don't think the theory of clearing the field is likely to succeed and it wasn't a good idea, honestly."
Markey's allies insist he learned from the many mistakes of Coakley, the state attorney general who lost the 2010 special to Brown after running one of the more inept campaigns in recent years. He has hired Sen. Elizabeth Warren's top two fundraisers, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown's campaign manager and the operative who managed Obama's field operation in the Bay State last year.
"I'm campaigning like the underdog in this race," Markey told POLITICO. "I'm not taking anything for granted."
Phil Johnston, a former two-time state Democratic Party chairman backing Markey, said about one-third of voters in a normal Democratic primary would be "Reagan Democrats." These voters are inclined to support Lynch, he said, but they are less likely to vote in a special election than progressive activists who identify more closely with the party and generally have a higher propensity to turn out.
"Markey is in good shape with the activists. ... The primary will be dominated by progressive activists," said Johnston. "If I were betting, which I'm not, I'd bet heavily on Markey."
The Lynch campaign downplays Markey's financial advantage by noting that the candidate with the most money came in fourth in a field of four in the 2010 Democratic special primary. His advisers argue that big ad buys have less of an impact with so few voters and say they've found initial fundraising "extremely encouraging."
Still, knowing he'll be outspent by a wide margin, Lynch said his labor support -- 34 labor organizations are behind him so far by his count -- and earned media will allow him to reach most voters in what's sure to be a low-turnout election. He's pushing Markey to agree to at least six debates. Markey said there will be debates after the two campaigns agree on the details.
"Radio, TV, blogosphere -- whatever forum is made available to us, I'm accepting," Lynch said.
A Public Policy Polling survey released before Lynch officially became a candidate found Markey starting with a 52 percent to 19 percent lead over Lynch. The Democratic automated pollster reported that slightly more Democratic voters saw Lynch negatively, 28 percent, than positively, 27 percent. Markey was viewed favorably by 58 percent of Democrats and unfavorably by only 13 percent.
"No one here thinks it's a cakewalk, and certainly it's a race, but there doesn't seem to be a path to victory for Lynch," said a Washington Democratic official supportive of Markey. "Low turnout helps Ed. ... There won't be anywhere near enough independents who care about one Democrat more than another. ... I haven't seen a single poll that shows Lynch has a real shot at this."
Markey boosters argue that Lynch will not gain traction when potentially-amenable Democrats hear about his longtime opposition to abortion and his 2010 vote against health reform.
Massachusetts is one of the most Catholic states in the country, yet paradoxically the electorate is overwhelmingly supportive of abortion rights. Even Brown presented himself as a "pro-choice" Republican in ads last year.
Though Lynch has described himself as "pro-life" in the past, he now resists "bumper sticker" labels and stresses that he has never pushed for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. He notes that he has opposed cutting funding for Planned Parenthood in recent years.
As for his vote against the health care overhaul, Lynch pointed out that he backed an earlier version that included a public option. He said problems with implementing the law validate his concerns from early 2010, especially as some union members face losing their health coverage.
More broadly, Lynch plans to contrast his economic populism on pocketbook issues and opposition to trade agreements with Markey's leadership on more abstract issues like climate change and telecommunications. And in the interview with POLITICO, Lynch echoed a shot at Markey that Brown took when he was still mulling whether to run.
"I don't live in Washington. I live right here in the state," Lynch said. People "don't see me as a creature of Washington. They do see that my opponent has been selected by the establishment in Washington."
Asked to respond to the residency attack, Markey said by phone from Masschusetts on Sunday afternoon: "I've lived in the same house for 34 years."
He identified the key issues animating his campaign as taking on the gun lobby, dealing with climate change, protecting abortion rights for women, and creating jobs. He noted that the state's economy is dependent upon the kinds of biotech, clean tech and telecommunications industries he has focused his efforts on in the House.
Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who is neutral in the race, said it will be tough for Lynch to win because of his positions that turn off the base of the party. But Brown not running does creates an opening for Lynch, she said.
"There's a swath of voters he can now try to bring into the Democratic primary," she said.
Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, believes that Brown pulling out will make a batch of Democratic voters feel they no longer need to fall in line behind Markey because he seems the most electable.
The only Republican to declare his candidacy so far is state Rep. Dan Winslow, who worked as a legal aide to then-Gov. Mitt Romney. Brown, however, was considered the only Republican who could win.
One of the keys for Lynch at this stage is to convince donors and outside groups that he's viable. Several big unions have not officially endorsed yet. The building trades will be with Lynch since he comes from them, but it remains to be seen where the firefighters, teachers and commercial workers go and how much they will spend.
The endorsement of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who is officially neutral for now, would also be a boon.
While the 66-year-old Markey hasn't had to fight for his job in decades, Lynch, 57, is a proven campaigner. He toppled an incumbent in 1994 to win a seat in the state House, beat the son of the state Senate president two years later and won his House seat in 2001 on the strength of his ground game after Robert Kennedy's son Max withdrew.
This race "is the exact same story. The advantage of having gone through this so many times is that I'm at peace with it," Lynch said. "I really do welcome them to underestimate me."
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