BY STEVE PEOPLES
BOSTON — Drawing on the political might of the White House, Democrats swept to victory in a U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts that highlighted President Barack Obama's challenges in the 2014 congressional elections and the GOP's struggle to broaden its appeal.
Three years ago, a little-known Republican state senator, Scott Brown, shocked the political world with an unlikely victory to claim the seat held by the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in the heavily Democratic state.
Democrats made sure history didn't repeat itself Tuesday night as U.S. Rep. Ed Markey captured the special election to replace U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the current secretary of state.
The veteran congressman defeated Gabriel Gomez, a businessman hailed as a new kind of Republican but a candidate who failed to inspire Massachusetts voters and Washington's GOP leaders alike.
It was a resounding victory, 55 percent to 45 percent, in a low-turnout election for the Democratic Party, still haunted by Brown's 2010 special election stunner.
"To everyone in the state, regardless of how you voted, I say to you tonight this is your seat in the United States Senate," Markey, 66, said in his victory speech, echoing one of Brown's most common lines.
Washington Democrats quickly pivoted from the victory to question the Republican National Committee's high-profile re-branding effort, prompted by a post-2012 election internal report that emphasized a need for the GOP to attract more women and minorities.
On paper, the Spanish-speaking Gomez, a former Navy SEAL with moderate views on social issues, was the kind of candidate the RNC had sought.
"National Republicans really thought they were putting their best foot forward when they got behind Gabriel Gomez and it just didn't work," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, head of the Democratic National Committee, said Wednesday.
"It's been 100 days since the Republican Party and the RNC pledged to change their ways, and it's clear that that effort has been a failure," she said.
At the same time, the Massachusetts contest served as a reminder that Obama faces considerable political challenges in more competitive Senate contests in less-friendly terrain in 2014, when Democrats' grip on the Senate majority will be tested.
The president has pledged to play a more aggressive political role for his party through next year's elections with huge stakes for his legacy and final-term agenda.
The White House and Obama invested heavily in the race, largely because of fears of a Brown-like surprise.
Obama's ability to influence next year's election is unclear given his mixed popularity in the states expected to host the most competitive contests — South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas and Iowa, among them.
Democrats suggest that Obama probably will play a less visible role, focusing more on fundraising.
Republicans claimed a moral victory, having forced Democrats to deploy their biggest political stars in an election in which Markey enjoyed significant advantages in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts. Markey's victory follows personal visits by Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton and Wasserman Schultz.
"Not every fight is a fair fight," Gomez said in his concession speech. "Sometimes you face overpowering force. We were massively overspent. We went up against literally the whole national Democratic Party. And all its allies."
From the beginning, it appeared that national Democrats were more committed to the contest than national Republicans, raising questions about the GOP's commitment to candidates who might help improve the party's appeal after a painful 2012 election season.
Washington Republican leaders distanced themselves from Gomez partly by design. The 47-year-old businessman attacked Markey as the ultimate Washington insider and was reluctant to link himself to the same national forces he condemned. But as Democrats poured money and manpower into Massachusetts, Gomez needed help to capitalize on Markey's weaknesses.
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani campaigned in Boston for Gomez. But what help he got appeared to be too little, too late.
Both sides acknowledged that Markey, a congressman since 1977, was not a perfect candidate. At times, he struggled to connect with voters while campaigning. He also faced repeated questions about whether he was a full-time resident of Washington or Massachusetts.
Washington's traditional Republican campaign apparatus sent Gomez some paid workers and campaign cash, but Markey and his national allies dramatically outspent Gomez's side. The disparity was fueled by Gomez's inability to attract pro-Republican super PACs that funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into elections to help Republican candidates last fall.
At the same time, Gomez's moderate positions alienated the national tea party movement that helped fuel Brown's rise three years ago.
"Gomez left his base unenthused and unexcited," said Sal Russo, chief strategist to the Tea Party Express, which was among the first national groups to help Brown's 2010 campaign. "When a Republican tries to look like a Democrat-light, what Democrats do is vote for a Democrat. You have to create some contrast."
Still, Republicans suggest that Markey's need to involve the White House could mean trouble for Democrats in 2014.
Almost immediately after winning re-election last November, Obama said he would go all out for his party in 2014, mindful that electing more Democrats could make the difference between success and failure for his second-term agenda.
Markey, who serves out the rest of Kerry's term, faces his first re-election test next year.
Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc and Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.