BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley on Tuesday won the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death Senator Edward Kennedy, who died in August of brain cancer.
The victory came at a critical time for President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, which is counting on maintaining its 60-seat majority in the 100-member Senate as the body wrestles with legislation for a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.
Coakley, 56, will face Republican state legislator Scott Brown in the January 19 election for the legendary Senate seat, which Edward Kennedy took over from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Coakley is heavily favored to win and to serve the rest of Kennedy's term in the Senate, which will run through 2012.
The liberal New England state has not elected a Republican to the Senate in almost 40 years, though it has had a Republican governor for most of the past two decades.
"The election is over," said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "We have to vote in January, but the outcome is preordained. Coakley will win."
In her acceptance speech, Coakley evoked the memory of Ted Kennedy and his two assassinated brothers, John and Robert.
"They helped to change the face of government and politics in Massachusetts and in the entire country," Coakley told supporters. "They showed us possibilities and then the realities that we never thought we could achieve and for that we are grateful."
The winner of the January contest will replace Paul Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and Kennedy friend whom Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed in September with the support of the Kennedy's widow and sons.
Kennedy's successor will have his seat but not the power the liberal icon accrued after almost 47 years in the Senate.
Voter turnout for the special election was low, with less than one in five registered voters casting ballots.
Coakley faced three challengers, including U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano.
During her tenure as the state's attorney general, Coakley has sued the U.S. government to seek federal marriage benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
She has also taken on companies such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc and the Merrill Lynch unit of Bank of America Corp over business practices and wrung millions of dollars in settlements from construction companies involved in the construction of Boston's "Big Dig," where the 2006 collapse of a tunnel ceiling killed a motorist.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Chris Wilson)