Another Senate race in Massachusetts?

Speculation is heating up that Massachusetts U.S. Senator John Kerry may be named to a Cabinet-level post in Obama’s second term: most likely either State or Defense. This has prompted a cascade of worries that the Democrats are making an unforced error and may lose a Senate seat if they can’t field an able candidate to replace Kerry in Massachusetts. (This is especially concerning given recently defeated Senator Scott Brown’s persistent popularity.) Dan Amira at New York Magazine makes this point:

As everyone is aware, Kerry’s elevation to a cabinet post would open up a Senate seat in Massachusetts, providing the just-defeated Scott Brown with an opportunity to rejoin the Senate without even having to take on an incumbent. Why would Republicans do anything to dissuade Obama from setting this chain of events in motion? Do they have a personal vendetta against Brown, despite his unique position as the only Republican in the entire state of Massachusetts capable of winning a Senate seat? First, GOP senators blocked Elizabeth Warren’s confirmation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, thus freeing her up for an ultimately successful run against Brown. And now the potential opposition to Kerry’s nomination, Brown’s only route back to the Senate for the foreseeable future.

Of course, any discussion of the hypothetical nomination’s bad political strategy can’t exclude President Obama, who should be hesitant about the idea of Secretary Kerry for the same reason that the GOP should be thrilled. Yes, the Democrats gained two seats last week, bumping their majority up to 55. According to the Washington Post, administration officials believe that the gains “provided a cushion that allowed them to consider Kerry’s departure from the chamber.”

But why risk diminishing the Democratic majority at all when there are plenty of other suitable would-be defense secretaries who aren’t sitting senators? Just to reward a friend? That probably won’t seem worthwhile if an important piece of legislation ever falls one vote short of passage and Scott Brown is the deciding no vote — an admittedly unlikely but hardly impossible scenario.

Alec MacGillis at the New Republic, however, says Democrats shouldn’t be quite so concerned:

As the Democrats try to game out the risk of opening up the Kerry seat, the key factor to consider is context—that is, the circumstances in which the election to replace him would be held. Martha Coakley lost to Brown in 2010 in part because she was a deeply underwhelming candidate and because Brown offered a certain boy-next-door appeal. But she lost mainly because she was running in a low-turnout special election at a very improprituous moment for Democrats. Likewise, Warren knocked off Brown last week not just because she was a more feisty candidate than Coakley was, but because she was running in a general election where the state’s natural Democratic dominance would assert itself. This was what I kept hearing from veteran Democrats when I went up to Massachusetts to report on Warren’s midsummer struggles—even if she was having trouble finding her footing as a candidate, they said, one had to assume that she would benefit from high Democratic turnout in a presidential year. Yes, Brown would be able to peel off some of Barack Obama’s voters, but only so many.

And that’s just what happened. When Brown beat Coakley in 2010, 52 to 47 percent, there were barely more than 2.2 million votes cast. When Warren won 54 to 46 percent last week, there were more than 3.1 million votes cast. The contrast is particularly stark in the urban centers where Democrats rack up big margins. In Springfield, some 28,000 people voted in 2010 and Coakley netted about 7,000 votes. Last week, nearly twice as many voted there and Warren netted almost 25,000 votes. In Boston, she netted 120,000 votes where Coakley had netted less than half that amount. Turnout in the city was 65 percent—way above the 43 percent turnout in 2010, and higher even than the 62 percent who turned out for Obama’s first election.

What does this mean for a possible Kerry replacement? Well, on the one hand, that Democrats do need to worry about special elections, when the broader party base is less likely to turn out. But one also needs to keep in mind that the context for this special election (which would likely be held around June) would be much friendlier than the one in January 2010. Unless the tax and “fiscal cliff” negotiations go horribly awry for Obama, he and his party will be in a more favorable spot next spring than they were in late 2009 and early 2010. There is a chance that this time around, Patrick will not decree that his interim appointment to the open seat be forbidden from running in the special election, as he did in 2009 when he appointed longtime Kennedy aide Paul Kirk as interim after the senator’s death. This would allow the interim Democrat to run with a slight sheen of incumbency and, perhaps, even preclude a costly primary. Finally, there is the fact that the state electorate would be coming off a recent election where Warren and other Massachusetts Democrats drilled into the state’s many Democratic-leaning independent voters the importance of putting party over personality—even if voters liked Brown fine, they needed to consider the ramifications of giving Mitch McConnell another vote in the Senate. Presumably, this lesson would maintain a greater hold on voters next spring than it did in early 2010.

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