BOSTON — Two veteran state politicians won their parties' nominations Tuesday amid light turnout that followed a low-key campaign to fill the high-profile Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
Attorney General Martha Coakley won a four-way race for the Democratic nomination, while state Sen. Scott Brown bested a perennial candidate to win the Republican nomination. They will go head-to-head in the Jan. 19 special election.
Coakley's win was her first step toward becoming the first female senator from Massachusetts, a state otherwise known for its liberal political tradition.
"They said that women don't have much luck in Massachusetts politics. And we believed that it was quite possible that that luck was about to change," the normally buttondowned Coakley told a raucous crowd.
Brown, who has carved out a decidedly conservative record, faces an uphill challenge in a state where the majority of voters are independents but frequently vote Democratic.
"It is a Democratic state, but Democrats are hurting just like independents and Republicans," Brown told The Associated Press in an interview after he was declared the GOP winner.
He complained about Coakley's support for a federal health care overhaul, which he said would be a step back from the universal program in Massachusetts, saying, "These policies Martha is pushing are hurting Democrats as much as they are hurting independents and Republicans."
Coakley never mentioned Brown by name as she ticked off a list of progressive priorities, from passing a national health care bill to overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act. It limits how states, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits.
Recalling Kennedy, she asked not for a moment of silence but a round of applause in memory of him.
Election officials said turnout in Boston — a city bearing the Kennedy family image and name throughout — was a meager 10 percent, with similar turnout in most other cities.
Brown, 50, is a veteran legislator and lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard who's also gained local notoriety as a former Cosmopolitan centerfold model and the father of an "American Idol" contestant. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, he won 89 percent to 11 percent over Jack E. Robinson, a Harvard educated lawyer and businessman.
Coakley, 56, is a former federal prosecutor who went on to be Middlesex district attorney and, since 2007, the state's chief law enforcement officer.
She earned 47 percent of the vote, ahead of Rep. Michael Capuano with 28 percent, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei with 13 percent and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca — who spent over $5 million of his own money on the campaign — with 12 percent.
One of the bluest of Democratic states, Massachusetts has a Democratic governor, an all Democratic congressional delegation, Democratic majorities in both legislative branches and a straight Democratic lineup through its six constitutional offices.
Kennedy died Aug. 25 of brain cancer after holding his seat for nearly 47 years. During that span, he became a liberal Democratic icon despite a string of personal foibles that dashed a 1980 campaign for the presidency. One brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated while president, while another, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated while running for the office.
Edward Kennedy's seat has been held on an interim basis by Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former Democratic National Committee chairman, until it is filled permanently on Jan. 19.
Kennedy's widow, Vicki, and his children had been careful not to endorse any of candidates. After Coakley's election, the family issued a statement of support, saying they had "every confidence" she would prevail in January.
In conceding defeat, Capuano cited the political advantage Coakley gained during the past year as she hired staff, conducted polling and printed bumper stickers while Kennedy was mortally ill. The groundwork angered some family members.
"What we did was pretty darn amazing," the six-term congressman told his supporters. "We couldn't catch up. Simply put, others were ahead of us."
The election was the first time since 1984 that Massachusetts residents voted in a U.S. Senate race with no incumbent. It also was the first statewide special election since 2004, when the Legislature replaced the governor's power to fill congressional vacancies with a special election process.
Coakley targeted her campaign toward women and abortion rights supporters. Her last-minute pitch included prerecorded robocalls from former President Bill Clinton, who said, "You can trust her to get results in the Senate just as she has as your attorney general."
While Coakley opposes sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Brown supports President Barack Obama's buildup.
Political analysts described the election as something of a letdown after the long careers of Kennedy and his junior colleague, Sen. John Kerry, had left many aspiring politicians relegated to their current offices.
Vicki Kennedy decided against running, saying she could not compete with her late husband's legacy. His nephew, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, eschewed a race because he felt he could be more effective running his nonprofit energy assistance company.
There will be one Kennedy on the Jan. 19 ballot: Joe Kennedy, no relation to the late senator's family, collected enough nominating signatures to qualify as an independent candidate.