LAWRENCE, Mass. — Republican Gabriel Gomez is the first Latino candidate of either party to run for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. When he won the Republican primary last month, he began his victory speech with brief remarks in Spanish.
“Thank you very much, everybody, for being here with me tonight,” he told the audience in his native language.
Gomez is the new face of a Republican Party that seeks to be more inclusive in the wake of Mitt Romney and Scott Brown’s defeats at the polls last year.
When Gomez makes campaign stops in Spanish-speaking communities, as he did at Bali’s Bar in Lawrence last week, he campaigns in Spanish. But is heritage alone enough to win Gomez enough Latino votes to take him to the Senate?
One man at Bali’s tells Gomez the more Latinos in power, the better. But he adds a caveat.
“I would have to see what qualities he has, also, because it’s not just the fact of being Latino,” Bernardo de Leon said. “I would have to hear that he is going to do the right thing and that he is a capable person. That’s what matters.”
De Leon, a Democrat, was surprised to hear Gomez is a Republican. He says he has to investigate more, but if he thinks Gomez can do the job he says he’d vote for him.
Gomez is the first to say he is not making his appeal to Latinos simply on the basis of identity.
“My message to Latinos is that I am Latino,” Gomez said at a campaign stop at the Puerto Rican veterans’ memorial in the South End. “I grew up like them and I am going to work as hard as I can for the economy and so that there are more jobs for everybody, including Latinos.”
Gomez faces a high hurdle among Latino voters. Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington who conducts polls for Latino Decisions, explains just how high. He found in the days before last year’s U.S. Senate election, Elizabeth Warren was leading Scott Brown by a huge margin among Latinos.
“It was very, very large — 86 to 14,” Barreto said. “That was one of the largest margins of any state.”
Barreto says in order for Latinos to put him in the U.S. Senate, Gomez would have to double Brown’s margin, which means he needs 28 percent of the Latino vote. Alejandra St. Guillen, who runs Oiste, a nonpartisan group dedicated to improving Latino voter participation in Massachusetts, says that’s not an impossible goal.
“I think of those who will go out and vote, I don’t think that he’ll have an issue getting the 30 percent,” St. Guillen said. “In general, the voter turnout is much lower in a special election.”
But Gomez faces some daunting opponents dedicated to turning out the Latino vote for his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey.
They include personal care attendants Rosa Clase and Emily Rodriguez, from Springfield, and Pedro Ayala, from Lawrence. Last year, they and their colleagues in the Service Employees International Union knocked on thousands of doors for Warren. They believe they are responsible for increasing turnout in seven cities with a large Latino population.
For example, Lawrence saw a 13 percent increase in voter turnout over 2008. And Warren received three times as many votes as Martha Coakley did in 2010. The SEIU workers aim to do it again.
“Gomez speaks Spanish, but in reality he doesn’t have the same problems we have,” Ayala said. “He doesn’t support the programs we have in Lawrence and in other communities.”
“He has his last name in common with us,” Rodriguez said. “He is Hispanic, but in reality he hasn’t done anything for us. He has no record that indicates he’s going to benefit us. The fact that he’s Latino doesn’t mean anything.”
“What guarantee do we have, if he’s never done anything for Hispanics, that he’ll do it now?” Clase said.
They are confident that they can persuade Latinos to vote against Gomez because, they say, they identify with the people they are trying to persuade. Gomez has six weeks to prove them wrong.