If Kerry Goes to State, Who Will Succeed Him? The Guessing Begins

A wide-open field of Democratic possibles and a lurking Scott Brown make Massachusetts politics fiendishly complicated. By David Freedlander.

There is perhaps no state in the union quite as weird as the Commonwealth of Massachussetts when it comes to holding special elections. Funny then, that they are on the brink of holding their second in two years, now that John Kerry is on the cusp of giving up his Senate seat to become Barack Obama’s new secretary of state.

The Massachusetts weirdness is mainly due to the fact that the state legislature is both dominated by Democrats, and has an occasional tendency to be too clever by half. Thus, in 2004, when Mitt Romney was governor and John Kerry was running for president, the legislature changed the rules prohibiting the governor from appointing an interim senator, fearful that Republican Romney would appoint a fellow GOPer and jeopardize the Democrats’ chances of retaking the Senate. Romney vetoed the bill, but Democrats overrode it, even though it meant that Massachusetts would be without a second senator for several months until a special election could be held. Kerry went on to lose and the Democrats lost seats in the Senate that year, so the issue became moot.

Then, in 2009, when it began to look likely that Sen. Ted Kennedy would die while in office, the legislature reversed itself and permitted Democratic governor Deval Patrick to appoint a caretaker for the seat for several months until a special election would be held. The reason then was that the caretaker appointment would be the 60th vote in the Senate for health-care reform. And Kennedy confidant Paul Kirk turned out to be just that, casting the vote just after Scott Brown shocked the commonwealth and much of the nation by defeating Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley.

And so if Kerry is confirmed for the State Department, Patrick is faced again with the prospect of handing someone a precious seat in the U.S Senate that disappears in a few months. According to politicos in Massachusetts, if Patrick had someone in mind who he really wanted to be the senator, appointing him or her to the seat wouldn’t necessarily be that much of a leg up. This short-term senator may be able to clear the field of any Democratic primary challengers, but would have to set up a new office, travel frequently to Washington and cast awkward votes, while the Republican in the race, unencumbered by elected office, would go on a barnstorming tour around the state.

In 2010, Patrick promised to appoint someone who would not run in the special election, and people close to him think he is unlikely to renege on the promise, and expect some kind of gray eminence of Massachusetts politics to get the assignment again. Several political insiders in Massachusetts mentioned the possibility that Kirk may get the assignment again. ABC News reported on Friday that Patrick had reached out to Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s wife, about a possible appointment. Other potential names include former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, retiring Congressman Barney Frank, and Charles Jay Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who taught both Michelle and Barack Obama there.

If Kennedy signals that she wants the seat, Democrats say few would be willing to mount a challenge considering how revered the family is in the state. She has given no indication that she does however, and a family spokesperson declined to speak to The Daily Beast on Friday. But even a Kennedy on the ballot wouldn’t guarantee that Democrats hold the seat. Brown lost to Elizabeth Warren by 7 points in November, but his success against Coakley leads Democrats to fear that he may be particularly dangerous in a shortened campaign season, low turnout special election, especially considering that he raised $28 million this election cycle. Brown has not been shy about signaling his intentions to get back in the game, delivering a farewell speech on the Senate floor this week in which he told his soon to be former colleagues, “Depending on what happens, and where we all go, all of us, we may obviously meet again.”

But jumping into the fray involves considerable risk for Brown. For one thing, he would have to raise a considerable chunk of change again, and many of his donors, after having been tapped twice for him in two years, may start to feel tapped out. And the smart thinking in GOP circles in Massachusetts is that the state is far more inclined to elect a GOP governor than a senator.

“We didn’t elect Scott Brown because he wasn’t a nice guy. He is a nice guy. We didn’t elect him because he is a Republican. Even if he wins a special election, he would always be on the defensive,” said one Democratic operative.

But still, Brown retains a significant popularity in the state, and could brag of a far higher name ID than any of the likely Democratic challengers.

“I think he will run, and I think he is the favorite,” said Rob Gray, a GOP consultant. “A special is a lot easier for him. It’s in June, the students have gone home. In 2010, he needed to draw an inside straight to win. This time he doesn’t need that. He has statewide name ID, he has a pretty big fundraising base, and he is still pretty popular.”

The list of Republicans after Brown is fairly short—former Gov. William Weld has been mentioned, as has former state Senate minority leader Richard Tisei.

Either way, look for every Democrat from Chatham to Pittsfield to take a look at the race. The big three at the moment are Boston area Congressmen Ed Markey, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch. All three have federal campaign accounts, which can be a huge advantage, since due to another quirk of the commonwealth, state lawmakers can’t transfer over funds to run for federal office. All three can retain their House seat if they lose.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

One political operative described a race between the three of them as between the experienced Markey, the lefty Capuano, and the conservative Lynch.

“Markey would run saying he is the national leader on the environmental issue, on global warming. In Massachusetts we like our senators to stand out. Markey would be that. He is going to be the guy who says, ‘I don’t have to learn how to do the job.’ Capuano is the former mayor of Somerville, the scrappy, suburban fighter. He is the guy who is going to say, ‘I am going to go down to stand with Elizabeth Warren and kick the shit out of everybody down there. Lynch is a former iron worker, a pro-life conservative.”

Democrats in D.C are hoping that Coakley doesn’t try to make another run after her disastrous 2010 campaign. Democrats in Massachusetts say that the attorney general still has some advantages—including, and most important, broad popularity among the electorate—but predict she is unlikely to run again. Other Democrats thought to be interested include University of Massachusetts chancellor and former congressman Marty Meehan, State Senator Ben Downing, and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

Several Massachusetts operatives on both sides of the aisle suggested that the party would be wise to pick a fresh face to go against Brown.

“I get the feeling this state is looking at the next generation,” said one politico. “That’s what Elizabeth Warren was, and that is what Scott Brown was, and that is certainly what Deval Patrick was. All of them were unknowns when they ran. It took John Kerry 28 years to be the senior senator from the state. Elizabeth Warren will be the senior senator from Day One. I think people here are ready for that.”

“To me you have a hard time beating Scott Brown with a 30-year congressman like Ed Markey,” concurred Gray, the GOP operative. “They are going to nominate someone who has barely lived in the state over the past three decades, and who is not particularly accomplished in areas that voters care about? What is he going to do, talk about The Telecommunications Reform Act?”

And a divisive, multi-candidate primary sounds delicious to Republicans.

“I don’t think any of the members of the delegation can beat Scott Brown, but at the same time, nature may take its course in a primary, and they are limited by their candidates.”