Tonight, Democratic big wheels will pile into Boston’s Symphony Hall, having spent up to $2,400 for the privilege of feting John Kerry.
The Boston Pops will play, along with dependable chicken-dinner strummer James Taylor and the living members of Peter, Paul, and Mary. One party veteran estimates that the night, a celebration of Kerry’s 25 years in U.S. Senate, could bring in as much as $2 million.
But the gala is about more than showing appreciation—it’s a display of force. State Democrats want to show that they are ready to take on Scott Brown, the Republican who so embarrassed them last January, and whose election foretold the GOP midterm smackdown.
“We cannot underestimate Scott Brown,” says Doug Rubin, senior strategist for Gov. Deval Patrick, in a line that Democrats repeat endlessly like a spell to ward off bad election voodoo.
The challenge that Brown presents is formidable. In surveys, he ranks as the most popular politician in the state, with a crossover appeal that’s dangerous to the Democrats. More than a quarter of self-identified liberals say they approve of the job Brown is doing. He had nearly $7 million in the bank at the end of September. And although Brown is losing love from the Tea Party movement, he diligently picked up chits campaigning throughout the country during the midterms. Plus with a memoir in the works, Brown can expect another round of national attention in early 2011.
Against that juggernaut, the Democrats have a host of problems—fundraising for a start. Preparing for a race expected to require $15 million to $20 million, the party is now without its two most high-profile moneymen—Alan Solomont has taken a job as the U.S. ambassador to Spain while Steve Grossman was just elected state treasurer.
“I expect we will be outspent,” says Democratic chairman John Walsh.
Another problem stems from the quality of candidates they have to challenge the GOP. The two most admired Democrats in the state—and the two with perhaps the easiest shot at beating Brown—may be out of the running.
The candidate many Democrats would love to see on the ticket is Ted Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Kennedy. But she has done her darnedest to squelch rumors that she is interested in running. “There’s only one Senator Kennedy,” she told the Boston Globe Magazine this summer.
“No one knows—and I mean nobody—whether she is going to run or not, and I would include her in that.”
• The 2010 Political DictionaryStill, the one-time banking attorney hasn’t exactly shied away from the spotlight, fueling "will-she- or-won’t-she" rumors as she bangs the drum for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, hustles around the country for fundraisers, pops in on women’s events throughout the state, and—in those rare spare moments—returns to Capitol Hill to stump for causes once championed by her husband.
“She is a major factor, and a major consideration for everybody,” says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “No one knows—and I mean nobody—whether she is going to run or not, and I would include her in that.”
Another wish-list candidate is Deval Patrick, who trounced Republican Charlie Baker in this year’s gubernatorial race. But he, too, has expressed unwillingness to run.
There are, however, plenty of other potential candidates testing the waters.
As President Obama announced his tax deal last week, several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation used the moment to heighten their profile with a fierceness that seems designed to please progressives in deep-blue Massachusetts.
Rep. Michael Capuano, who lost in the Democratic primary for last January’s special election, jumped onto Fox News to declare himself so free from the White House’s sway that he would back a liberal primary challenger in 2012. To further his fighter’s image, Capuano also recently compared Nancy Pelosi to a losing Red Sox manager who should be canned.
The other politician jostling for attention on the tax-cut issue is Rep. Stephen Lynch, and party leaders agree that Lynch and Capuano are the officeholders most likely to step forward and challenge Brown.
The two occupy different space in the Democratic Party. Capuano comes from one of the most liberal districts in country, a district that includes Cambridge. Lynch, 55, is pro-life; a one-time iron-worker whose opposition to health-care reform hurt his relationship with labor. At the moment, it’s Capuano, a 58-year-old former city mayor, who is poised to secure the backing of the state party apparatus and the rank-and-file. Still, local Democrats know that Lynch’s centrist leanings could appeal to the middle and return the independent vote that Brown picked off in January 2010. (Brown and Lynch share more than political real estate. The Republican moved into Lynch’s D.C. apartment building this past winter.)
Democrats hope that a candidate will emerge by late spring, giving the favorite a year to fundraise before the nominating convention in the summer of 2012. With this schedule in mind, the contest for who will earn the support of party donors and establishment dons is picking up speed.
“A couple of members of the delegation are pushing doorbells and calling folks and finding out what their temperature is,” says Thomas O’Neill III, the former lieutenant governor.
Could anyone beat Brown? Democrats tick off a host of reasons why the Republican will be retired after only two years in office. Patrick’s victory showed the strength of their grassroots operation when confronted by a viable Republican rival. Democrats held on to each congressional seat and won all statewide offices, despite the most favorable environment for Republicans in decades. The electorate for the presidential election is expected to be very different than the one that turned out for Brown last January.
And as Brown continues to walk a tightrope in the Senate, balancing the demands of voters in Massachusetts and party leadership in Washington, there’s a chance he’ll stumble. Local Democrats will tell you he already has, pointing to his milquetoast stand on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or his votes against extending unemployment benefits. Brown struck a strange note after Thanksgiving when he made passing legislation on food safety sound like quite possibly the dumbest thing the Senate could do.
Still, he remains a daunting opponent—and the Democrats are raring to go.
“Ideally,” says Philip Johnston, former Democratic Party chair, “there would be someone running now.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.