Massachusetts Free for All Over John Kerry’s Senate Seat

The fight to become Massachusetts’s junior senator could be a real donnybrook, writes Ben Jacobs.

Barring an unexpected Senate confirmation fight or the Mayan apocalypse, John Kerry will be the next secretary of State.

No wonder a small battalion of Democrats is maneuvering to run for Kerry’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, and one of the names being floated is Teddy Kennedy Jr. On the surface, Kennedy’s candidacy might seem plausible. After all, he is Teddy’s son, and after losing his leg to cancer as a youth, he has developed a career as an advocate for the disabled. But as a political novice who doesn’t live in the state, he doesn’t sound like a formidable contender, and seems to be mentioned only because it is obligatory to name drop at least one Kennedy for every open political office in Massachusetts.

Contrary to many pundits’ expectations, Kerry’s elevation to the State Department will not automatically lead to Scott Brown’s return to the Senate. In fact, unless he has some help from the crowded Democratic field, Brown--if he runs--is likely to be defeated for the second time in less than a year.

President Obama formally unveiled Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and five-term senator, as his choice for Foggy Bottom on Friday after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice ruled herself out.

Once Kerry is confirmed, the expectation is that a placeholder will be appointed to his seat until a special election is held in late May or early June. (It need not be a placeholder according to Massachusetts law, but Gov. Deval Patrick, who makes the decision, has indicated he will not appoint anyone who plans on running for the seat).

This has left many Republican salivating at the prospect that Brown, the moderate who won the 2010 special election for Kennedy’s seat before losing a close race in November to Elizabeth Warren, can make a comeback bid.

Brown has always been popular in Massachusetts, due largely to the folksy image that he conjured wearing his barn jacket and driving his pickup truck across the state in his first campaign. As Nate Silver noted, even when Brown lost, 60 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of him. Brown will bring this popularity along with the ability to raise almost unlimited money for a potential bid for the Senate. He has only one obstacle: he’s a Republican.

Brown lost for a reason in 2012. Massachusetts is a strongly Democratic state and the national Republican Party’s brand is toxic there. The state has not elected a Republican to Congress since 1994, nor has it voted a Republican to a full term in the Senate since Richard Nixon’s landslide win in 1972.

In 2010, Brown was able to transcend this solely because he got lucky. His opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, was a relatively poor candidate who disparaged the Red Sox and the very idea of campaigning, mocking the idea of “standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" It didn’t help that she took a weeklong vacation over New Year’s, less than three weeks before Election Day. But it wasn’t just her pitfalls. Brown was also aided by the ongoing debate about the Affordable Care Act then pending in Congress. He was able to cast the election as a referendum on whether Democrats should have 60 votes in the Senate and thus absolute control of the legislative process. The result was that he pulled out a narrow five-point win.

In a 2013 special election, Brown won’t be able to count on any of these factors. Although he was able to catch Democrats by surprise the last time he ran in a special election, it won’t happen again. Furthermore, the national debate has changed. The increasing influence of the Tea Party, a group that was still nascent when Brown was first elected, has driven the national Republican Party further to the right and further away from the median Massachusetts voter. With such ongoing issues as the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling as well as the new focus on gun control after Newtown, Brown will be stuck in an awkward political position. If he sticks with his party, he will alienate the swing voters he needs to win. If he carves out an independent position, he will alienate national Republican donors and undermine his party’s message in Washington. Trying to split the difference, as he did against Elizabeth Warren, won’t work.

In fact, the political climate for Brown may get even worse. It’s long been rumored that Ruth Bader Ginsburg might retire early in Obama’s second term and if her seat, or any other seat on the court opens up, it will put Brown in the middle of a Supreme Court confirmation battle. Considering he is on the record and, on video, naming Antonin Scalia as his model justice, it would be a recipe for political disaster.

But Brown does have one strong chance at winning if he chooses to run, which is trusting in the disorganization of the Democrats to save him. If Patrick appoints a placeholder, as he is expected to do, there is the possibility of a furious and divisive Democratic primary for the seat.

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This means that a number of Democratic congressmen are believed to be thinking of the seat, including 36-year-veteran Ed Markey, Steve Lynch, a socially conservative but union-backed Democrat from South Boston, and Michael Capuano, an urban liberal who ran and lost against Coakley in the primary for the last special election. They would all have free runs since they would not have to give up their seats to participate in the special election. Other rumored plausible rumored candidates include retired congressman Marty Meehan and 31-year-old state senator Ben Downing.

There’s even celebrity candidate whose name is being bandied about—actor Ben Affleck, but he faces such major obstacles as never having run for elected office and not actually being a Massachusetts resident.

The crowded field could set off a fierce and vicious primary. The result would allow Brown to raise a tremendous amount of money and flood the airwaves with positive ads emphasizing his blue-collar bi-partisanship while Democrats squabbled among themselves. The result would leave a wounded Democratic nominee only six weeks to run a general election campaign and raise the necessary funds to do so.

This situation could be avoided, though, if Patrick reneges on appointing a placeholder or if the Massachusetts legislature changes the law, (something it has done twice already in the past decade), allowing the appointed senator to serve through the 2014 general election. Patrick insisted on picking a placeholder in 2009 because the seat was thought to be safe and he didn’t want to play favorites. Now he risks looking like a hypocrite if he reneges. The legislature is less concerned about looking like hypocrites. It’s just a question of whether or not the political willpower is there to undertake such a transparently political act.

But assuming that this good government fever doesn’t break in the Bay State, party bosses, both nationally and in Massachusetts, will likely unite around one favored candidate and attempt to force all other contenders out. The only question is whether that candidate will be any good (Martha Coakley wasn’t) and whether they are successful at their squeeze. If so, Brown is in trouble. And, even if he does win, he would have to go before voters all over again for a full term in 2014 and face three statewide elections as a Republican in Massachusetts in a span of exactly two years.

The alternative though is that Brown doesn’t run at all. After two intense and grueling campaigns since 2010, he now has the opportunity to relax and make significant money as a political celebrity. If he wants to pursue elected office, the governor’s office is open in 2014 and Massachusetts has a long history of electing Republicans to it. It would be a race where national issues would not come into play and he could instead focus on the message of compromise and moderation that proved so successful to him in 2010 without pressure from Washington. In fact, before Patrick, Massachusetts hadn’t elected a Democratic governor since Michael Dukakis, and had even gone so far as to elect a former Bain Capital executive named Mitt Romney to lead the state.

The Republican bench behind Brown is relatively weak, and it would be difficult to see any other Republican raising the money and building the name recognition needed to succeed statewide. Brown is the only Republican with a chance to win—but not as good a chance as the prognosticators may think.