On November 29, 1995, Governor Bill Weld announced his candidacy for the Senate seat occupied by U.S. Senator Kerry with a formal announcement on March 27, 1996. Kerry's previous two opponents in 1984 and 1990 had no prior elected office experience. The election was one of many competitive senate elections in 1996.
At the federal level, Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats and eight of ten U.S. House seats. No Republican won a senate election since 1972. In the 1984 presidential election, President Ronald Reagan won 49 of 50 states, with Massachusetts being his worst performance (excluding Walter Mondale's home-state of Minnesota. Reagan carried the state with just 51% of the vote. In 1994, incumbent Democrat Ted Kennedy won re-election against businessman Mitt Romney with just 58% of the vote, the lowest percentage since his first senate election campaign in 1962.
The first debate between Weld and Kerry was held in Faneuil Hall on April 8 with a second debate held on June 3. A third debate was held at the Emerson Majestic Theater on July 2. The Weld and Kerry campaigns agreed to eight debates and a spending cap of $6.9 million negotiated at Senator Kerry's Beacon Hill home on August 7; Senator Kerry later mortgaged his house to raise funds in October. On the same day the spending cap was agreed upon, Governor Weld jumped into the Charles River after signing a bill and spoke at the 1996 Republican National Convention on August 14 before debating U.S. Senator Kerry again on August 19. Senator Kerry spoke at the 1996 Democratic National Convention and debated Governor Weld again on September 16.