Senator John F. Kerry won a decisive victory Tuesday night against Edward O’Reilly, carrying almost every Massachusetts city and town in the first Democratic primary challenge the incumbent has faced in 24 years.
Kerry, who will now go up against Republican Jeff Beatty in November, addressed supporters and volunteers Tuesday night at McGann’s Irish Pub in downtown Boston and tried to keep the focus on the national election and the Republican in the White House who defeated him four years ago.
“Good news tonight. Number one, we won this primary,” Kerry said. “And number two — and frankly probably a lot more important — there are only 128 more days of George Bush.”
Kerry, seeking a fifth term, gave his six-minute victory speech at about 9 p.m., before receiving a concession call from O’Reilly, with results for only about 1 in 4 precincts reported. With more than half the state’s precincts reporting, Kerry had carried almost every community, losing only a couple of small towns, such as Holland, where O’Reilly prevailed, 46 to 43. In his hometown of Gloucester, O’Reilly won about 48 percent of the vote to Kerry’s 52 percent, with 9 of 10 precincts reporting.
O’Reilly, a political novice, embraced the role of underdog from the start, acknowledging his long odds but running a feisty campaign that sought to tap dissatisfaction with Kerry.
O’Reilly, a lawyer and former firefighter, is a dissatisfied former Kerry supporter himself. He tried to galvanize those who shared his view that Kerry is not committed enough to Massachusetts. O’Reilly also was critical of Kerry’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002, an issue that dogged Kerry’s 2004 run for president.
O’Reilly also cast Kerry as an out-of-touch member of the elite, much as Republicans did four years ago.
But voters Tuesday said they thought Kerry’s long tenure would benefit the state more than having someone with little experience, and said they did not buy O’Reilly’s charge that Kerry had abandoned Massachusetts.
“I’ve been in Massachusetts my whole life, and I don’t think Senator Kerry has left us in the dark,” said Joe Megnia, 51, a Verizon lineman from Somerville. “He’s there for us; he’s watching out for our backs.”
“It occurred to me to vote for O’Reilly to give Kerry a kick in the pants, because they can become complacent,” said Althea Chen, 32, a graphic designer from Somerville. “But I just don’t know enough about O’Reilly. … [Kerry] is a known quantity.”
Still, supporters seemed to appreciate Kerry, not revere him like the state’s senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy.
“I think he’s been a fine senator, and he stands for the things I believe in, and he deserves to represent me,” said Diana Miller, 79, of Cambridge, who is retired from a career in public relations. Miller forgot about the primary while traveling but was reminded to vote for Kerry by an endorsement mailer that pictured Kennedy but not Kerry.
“And that did it,” Miller said, clutching the postcard and thinking of Kennedy, who is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
Kennedy cast a vote for Kerry at Hyannis Town Hall Tuesday, along with his wife, Vicki, and issued a statement Tuesday night congratulating his friend and colleague: “On Nov. 4, Massachusetts will stand strong for John Kerry
as he has always stood strong for us, and we’ll return him to the Senate with a bold new president for all the American people, Barack Obama. I look forward to returning to the United States Senate with John Kerry in January as we work to get our economy moving again, bring healthcare to all, restore America’s standing in the world, and end the war in Iraq.”
Kerry, who voted in the morning near his Beacon Hill home, had not faced a Democratic challenger since winning the seat in 1984. His only serious race since then came in 1996, when he was challenged by Governor William F. Weld, a Republican. This year, Kerry treated O’Reilly — who was massively underfunded, and who had little experience in elective politics — as more of a nuisance than a threat.
Some O’Reilly voters identified themselves as supporters of the upstart candidate. Others simply wanted to cast an anti-Kerry vote, knowing little or nothing about the challenger.
“It would be good to send a message,” said Nick Shectman, 38, a computer programmer from Somerville who voted for O’Reilly because he is upset with Kerry over the war in Iraq. “The more votes the other guy gets, whose name I already forgot, the more it will say to Kerry that, ‘My constituents are a little more liberal than my voting has been.”’
In Gloucester, O’Reilly’s friends and neighbors cited his populist bent and enthusiasm. Others, like congregational minister Floyd Grace, 61, picked O’Reilly “just to shake things up a little bit. It’s always more of the same, year after year.”
Wakefield retiree Dennis M. Cloherty picked O’Reilly because of a belief that senators should not have “lifetime tenure,” although he knew Kerry could not be defeated. “We know that — even O’Reilly says that,” said Cloherty, 62, a former teacher, actor, and trucking executive.
O’Reilly earned a place on the primary ballot after collecting signatures from more than 10,000 voters and earning more than 15 percent support at the state Democratic Party convention in June. The candidates had just one debate, which lasted 19 minutes and was televised on a Sunday morning.
Instead, the incumbent held “Kerry on your Corner” events throughout Massachusetts and took out three TV ads, including one that featured former Vice President Al Gore praising Kerry’s work for the environment.