If There's A Special Election For Kerry’s Seat, Who Will Run?

Sen. John Kerry (AP)
Sen. John Kerry (AP)

Here’s a “what if?” that fuels speculation: If President Obama is reelected and Hillary Clinton retires as Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry might be appointed to replace her. Who would run for Kerry’s Senate seat in a special election?

If Elizabeth Warren beats Sen. Scott Brown in November, the GOP would probably back Brown for the open seat. After all, the GOP doesn't have a strong bench for a Senate campaign; it’s more like a folding chair. (Republican prospects like state Rep. Dan Winslow and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker seem focused on running for governor, not senator.)

Brown would be formidable. After this campaign he’d have residual momentum, a well-oiled organization, and maybe a few million bucks left over. A special election would be easier for him to win because his opponent wouldn't have Obama’s coattails and high Democratic turnout.

Who would win the Democratic nomination? If Joe Kennedy III wins Barney Frank’s House seat in November, he’d seem too ambitious and inexperienced to turn around and run for the Senate. But did such criticism stop Edward Kennedy, then 30, from running for the Senate in 1962? No, the Kennedys would have only one question in deciding whether JK3 should run: would he win?

Joe K3 will likely have millions left from this campaign and he’d be seen as a frontrunner. His money and name would deter other Democrats, as it did in his U.S. House race this time. Potential rivals realize that the Kennedy clan could use its celeb connections to raise over $10 million for his campaign. Other Democratic prospects don't have the stature, stomach or spine to oppose a Kennedy in this state anyway. They realize that his basic qualification is merely that he's a young Kennedy without a scandal, but here in liberal Lilliput that makes him a giant.

The younger Kennedys may feel even more motivated to assert themselves as political heirs because of their “public family feud,” reported in the Sunday Boston Globe by Frank Phillips:

The already frayed relationship between Vicki Kennedy and her late husband’s children is at the breaking point, with the two sons growing increasingly convinced that she is jeopardizing the senator’s legacy and mishandling the creation of the $71 million institute that bears his name...

If JK3 didn't run, perhaps Rep. Ed Markey would go for it. Assuming the GOP keeps control of the House, Markey might view the Senate as a good career capper, especially since that’s where the action will be for the next few years. There’d be little risk personally because he could keep his House seat while running in the special. However, if the Senate goes securely Republican, he probably wouldn’t want to give up his House seniority to become a powerless freshman.

Martha Coakley could win in a split field again. She says she doesn’t have the desire to run, but if she changed her mind she’d be a strong contender. If Warren is elected, many progressives would be inspired by the idea of Massachusetts going from never having had a woman senator to having, like Maine, two women.

It’s possible Coakley could beat JK3 in a primary because the contrast between a well-qualified woman and an overly ambitious man might be too obvious for even Camelot fantasists to ignore. Remember, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”


What would Sen. Warren do if there were such a party primary — would she endorse Kennedy or Coakley? She would probably stay neutral and urge them to join her in smoking a peace pipe.

If Warren loses to Brown, Democrats would likely nominate her for the Kerry seat.

Will Warren want to run again if she’s unsuccessful this time? Brown has made politics his career, but if Warren loses maybe she will decide to return to consumer causes and teaching.

If Warren did jump in, it’s hard to imagine that other top Democrats would run against her. What would be their rationale? If she loses in November it won’t be by a lot, so it’s not as if they could argue she doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Gov. Deval Patrick might be the only Democrat who could defeat Warren in a primary. But that too is an open question. Some Democratic activists would argue that his leaving office and allowing Lt. Gov. Tim Murray to assume the governorship could wreck the party’s reputation.

If Warren, Kennedy, Coakley and Patrick didn’t run, who would? Some Democrats dropped out of this year’s Senate race when it was clear that Warren had the money, media and momentum. In bowing out, Alan Khazei, Robert Massie, Tom Conroy and Setti Warren lost some credibility. By contrast, Marisa DeFranco stayed in the race and proved she was not just feisty, but fearless.

Old political names would resurface in speculation: Marty Meehan, the ex-congressman and current UMass-Lowell Chancellor; Rep. Mike Capuano, who lost to Coakley in the special election; and Rep. Stephen Lynch. They’d be credible but, especially after Warren, disappointing to liberals.

Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, lost in the last special Senate election. He could again self-finance his campaign, but now he’s got new baggage: his defense of Bain Capital in the presidential race. He was once a managing partner at Bain, which Democrats don’t consider a great credential. Indeed, he’s likely doomed as a Democratic prospect because of it. But what if he ran as an independent? He could try to emulate former Maine Gov. Angus King who, as an independent, is expected to win the Senate seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe.

What if Pagliuca secured the backing of Romney and Brown and ran as a Republican? Even as a Republican, Bain would be problematic for him. The controversial chairman of the state GOP, Robert Maginn Jr., was also a partner at Bain & Co. If Pagliuca were the GOP nominee, Democrats would probably imply that the state party had become Bain’s butler.

Another possible candidate for the GOP nomination is Dr. Elizabeth Childs, currently running for the U.S. House seat held by retiring Rep. Barney Frank. She is expected to lose the primary to the better-financed Sean Bielat, but having months to recover from that defeat before running in a special election could prove beneficial. Her appeal to moderates, independents and women could position her as a strong candidate if the Democrats nominated a dull, male pol. (No, that is not an allusion to state Treasurer Steve Grossman. He has his sights set on governor, not senator.)

The most likely winner would be whoever loses this year’s Senate race: Brown or Warren. If either won the special election, that would mean they would serve together in the Senate. Wouldn't that be ironic after this acrimonious contest?

It is not hard to imagine that Brown and Warren would get along just fine in the Senate. But here’s another scenario — what if they constantly feuded, to the amusement of other senators? Perhaps like “Political Animals,” the new TV series loosely based on the Clintons, a network would create a series about the Senate’s new odd couple.

And let’s not limit our speculation to an open Kerry seat. What if Obama is reelected and appoints Gov. Patrick to replace Eric Holder as attorney general... or to the Supreme Court?

Or what if Mitt Romney is elected president? Perhaps he’d appoint his fellow Bainiac, Pagliuca, to the Cabinet or an ambassadorship. Would Pagliuca then return to Massachusetts, as a Romney Republican, to run for governor?

Enough speculation. In Massachusetts politics, the one safe prediction is that we’ll be surprised.

This program aired on July 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Todd Domke Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.



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