Attorney General Martha Coakley easily captured the Democratic nomination for the US Senate tonight and took a giant step toward smashing the state’s political glass ceiling, as she parlayed her straightforward style and strong appeal among women into an overwhelming victory against a trio of male opponents.
Rolling up large margins in nearly every community across the state, Coakley became the first woman nominated by a major party for the US Senate in Massachusetts. She will face Republican State Senator Scott P. Brown, who easily won his party’s nomination, in a Jan. 19 special election to fill the seat held for 47 years by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the 56-year-old Coakley led her closest rival, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, 47 percent to 28 percent. City Year cofounder Alan Khazei had 13 percent of the votes, and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca won 12 percent.
"We knew there were plenty of skeptics out there," Coakley said in her victory speech at the Boston Sheraton, referring to those who doubted her ability to raise money or to win as an attorney general, a move that others before her have failed to make. "They said that women don't have much luck in Massachusetts politics -- we believed that it was quite possible that that luck was about to change! And change it did tonight!" Coakley shouted, spurring enthusiastic applause and chants of "Martha."
In contrast to the excitement expressed by those Coakley supporters, today saw one of the lowest turnouts for a contested primary in state history, despite both Kennedy’s legacy and the fact that this was the first-ever statewide special election. Though some suburban communities reported a steady stream of voters, many polling places were nearly empty for long stretches.
The results were particularly disappointing for Pagliuca, a businessman who blitzed the airwaves with campaign commercials while pouring more than $7.6 million of his own money into the race but still finished in last place. Khazei ran an energetic campaign with far fewer resources, but was unable to build anywhere near the type of grass-roots network necessary for a come-from-behind victory.
Capuano was considered to have the best chance to beat Coakley, but in the end could not gain enough traction. The list of major communities he was carrying tonight was limited to Amherst and those in his congressional district, such as Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, according to early returns.
Speaking to supporters at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Capuano thanked his backers and said Coakley’s familiarity with voters across the state was too much to overcome.
‘‘We couldn’t catch up, simply put,’’ Capuano said. ‘‘We did our best to narrow the gap and move forward, but in the final analysis, name recognition matters.’’
Pagliuca thanked voters for letting him into their homes.
‘‘The kindness was incredible; I learned a lot,’’ Pagliuca said, promising to work with Coakley on his signature campaign issue: bringing more jobs to Massachusetts.
The 50-year-old Brown, a three-term state senator from Wrentham, easily defeated Duxbury businessman Jack E. Robinson for the Republican nomination. Brown captured 89 percent of the vote to Robinson’s 11 percent.
Though the primary campaigns were largely cordial, the tenor is likely to change during the general election. Brown came out swinging in his victory speech tonight, saying the last thing Washington and Massachusetts need is ‘‘another partisan placeholder in the United States Senate.
‘‘We can elect an independent voice for all of Massachusetts,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the United States senator I promise to be.’’
Coakley, who has been eyeing a Senate seat for more than five years, was the first to get into the race, just days after Kennedy died on Aug. 25. It was the first open US Senate seat in a quarter century.
In many ways, she ran a highly disciplined campaign, jumping out with an early lead that she never relinquished. Her three opponents waited for her to stumble, but she never made any major gaffes.
She received broad support from across the state, winning urban areas such as Springfield, Quincy, and Lawrence by a 2-to-1 ratio. She also dominated in Berkshire County, including her native North Adams, and handily carried Middlesex County, where she was elected twice as district attorney.
‘‘It’s a great day for women in Massachusetts,’’ said state Senate President Therese Murray, a major Coakley backer. ‘‘This is a first for us. It means that women in Massachusetts can now raise the money which brings them to the party so that they can dance. And she’s gonna dance.’’
US Senator John F. Kerry said last night in a statement: ‘‘Tonight the glass ceiling in Massachusetts politics was smashed into a thousand pieces.’’
The Kennedy family also released a statement, saying, ‘‘We believe that Martha Coakley will represent the people of Massachusetts with honor and deep commitment.’’
Democrats are planning to gather this morning in the Kennedy Room at the Parker House, where the three losing candidates will join Governor Deval Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray to endorse Coakley.
Even with the high stakes, voters said yesterday that they felt uninformed, that they didn’t know the Democratic candidates well enough to issue a strong opinion.
‘‘I voted out of ignorance, I have to tell you,’’ said Sally Lutz, a 67-year-old painter from Cambridge. ‘‘I voted how my husband and friends said they were voting. I just haven’t followed it.’’
‘‘I was forgetting whether the election was today or tomorrow,’’ said her husband, Chris.
There were few major differences in the political positions of the four Democrats, leaving voters to make decisions that largely centered on their personality differences and personal backgrounds.
Several said they liked Khazei’s background in public service, even as few could pronounce his name correctly (the most common mispronunciation was ‘‘Karzai,’’ as in the president of Afghanistan, instead of the correct ‘‘Kay-zee’’). Capuano got high marks among voters for his feistiness and Washington experience, while Pagliuca made sure people knew him and his economic platform through his barrage of television ads.
Still, few voters cited any issues that drove them to the polls. Sidewalks outside polling places where scrums of campaign workers usually gather on election days with signs, pamphlets, and placards remained empty.
Most poll workers sat bored for much of the day, their noses stuck in books, newspapers, and magazines.
‘‘No one’s really paying attention,’’ said Maria Tomasia, an election official in New Bedford, which had anemic early turnout. ‘‘I’m very disappointed. I thought it would be large turnout, considering it’s Kennedy’s seat. I thought in his honor, his memory, they’d go out in larger numbers, but they’re not.’’
This election is the first test of a law passed five years ago by the Legislature that changed the procedure for filling a US Senate vacancy. Previously, the governor appointed a replacement, who served until the next statewide election.
The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, changed the law in 2004, in part to prevent the Republican governor at the time, Mitt Romney, from making an appointment to replace Senator John F. Kerry if he won the presidency. The law now calls for a special election to be held between 145 and 160 days of a vacancy.
The law was further tweaked this year, allowing the governor to name an interim replacement until the special election is held. The governor named Paul G. Kirk Jr., who vowed not to run in the special election and will step down once his replacement is sworn in.
Stephanie Ebbert, Andrea Estes, Michael Levenson, Eric Moskowitz, and Michael Rezendes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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