Saturday February 16, 2013

BOSTON -- For candidates considering running in Massachusetts’ upcoming U.S. Senate special election, one number looms large: 10,000.

That’s how many certified voter signatures are needed to secure a spot on the April 30 primary ballot.

The clock is ticking.

Candidates have less than two weeks to collect the signatures and deliver them to city and town clerks to be certified. The Feb. 27 deadline is the first significant hurdle in the race.

On the Republican side, the test could winnow down a field of contenders in a state of flux.

Two candidates -- Norfolk state Rep. Daniel Winslow and Cohasset businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez -- have already jumped into the race, although Gomez has said he’s not planning to speak publicly about his campaign until after the signature deadline passes.

Two other possible GOP candidates are waiting to officially declare, in part because of the signature hurdle.

Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan on Thursday kicked off what he called "a grass-roots effort" to collect the signatures needed using volunteers instead of paid helpers.

Also Thursday, Republican businessman Sean Bielat filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to form the "Sean Bielat for Senate" committee. The campaign treasurer listed on the FEC filings said Bielat is running, but Bielat later said he is exploring a run.

While Sullivan has said he plans to rely on volunteers, Winslow and Gomez say they will use a mix of volunteers and paid signature gatherers. Winslow has already said he plans to donate $100,000 of his own money to jump-start his campaign.

The Republican quandary stems in part from former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s decision to wait until Feb. 1 -- the day John Kerry resigned from the Senate and was sworn in as the nation’s new Secretary of State -- to announce he would not run.

The Brown announcement caught many Massachusetts Republicans off-guard and sparked a sometimes chaotic scramble to find other candidates for the special election.

On the Democratic side, two Massachusetts members of Congress -- U.S. Reps. Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch -- had already signaled their intention to run before Kerry’s resignation and were poised to immediately begin collecting signatures as soon as papers were made available Jan. 31.

Lynch and Markey also have hefty campaign war chests and existing political organizations to help gather the signatures.

Republican political consultant Jason Kauppi said that while Brown’s announcement shocked the party faithful, it’s not fair to blame him for giving Democrats a head start.

Kauppi said the race to collect signatures can be a critical first test of a candidate’s management skills.

Adding to the challenge is the requirement that Republicans collect signatures from Republican or independent voters, while Democratic candidates gather signatures from Democratic or independent voters.

Close to 53 percent of Massachusetts voters are independent voters, while nearly 36 percent are Democrats and another 11 percent are Republicans.

The special election takes place June 25.