The Trickle-Down Implications of Kennedy’s Illness

Obviously, the political world is focused on the health of Ted Kennedy, and not the potential political implications of his diagnosis with a malignant brain tumor. And despite the grim prognosis, it’s worth noting that there is a precedent in the Senate for overcoming similar odds: In 1993, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter was also diagnosed with a brain tumor and given weeks to live, but he’s still in office today. So there’s reason to hope that the 76-year-old Kennedy, who is now in his eighth full term, will end up carrying on well into the future.

But the seriousness of his condition raises the possibility that he may soon step down from office. And if that happens, it would mean a shake-up for what has been one of the most stable Congressional delegations in the country, one that would confront several entrenched politicians with difficult career choices.

Massachusetts has been represented by the same two senators since 1984, Kennedy and John F. Kerry. That, in turn, has created something of a logjam, with all ten members of the state’s all-Democratic House delegation stuck in their safe seats—a condition that has caused paralysis further down the ballot, with various state legislators and local officials (almost all of them Democrats) blocked from a chance to run for Congress.

The only movement in the state’s Congressional delegation in the past decade came because of death (Representative Joe Moakley’s in 2001) or career frustration (Representative Marty Meehan’s decision to give up his seat last year, partly because he didn’t feel like waiting around for Kennedy or Kerry to leave).

If Kennedy were to leave his seat, the floodgates would open. Unlike most states, Massachusetts does not allow its governor to appoint an interim senator in the event of a vacancy. Instead a special election would be held within 145 to 160 days of the vacancy—meaning that if Kennedy were to exit in the near future, the special election would presumably be held in conjunction with the November general election, with the party primaries in September. The winner of the special election would serve out the remainder of Kennedy’s term, which is due to expire in 2012. If he were to leave too late for a special election to be held this November, a special election would simply be held in early 2009.

The difference in timing is critical. A November special election would force every House member who wants to run to give up his or her seat. But a special election after November would allow the House members to run while holding onto their seats, essentially giving all of them a free shot at the Senate—a recipe for a crowded fight.

You can thank John Kerry and the Massachusetts Legislature for this peculiar arrangement. Until 2004, state law called for the gubernatorial appointment of an interim senator until the next regularly scheduled election. But when it looked like Kerry might win the presidency in 2004, the state’s Democratic establishment panicked at the prospect of Republican Governor Mitt Romney picking his successor, since Romney’s choice would then have a nearly two-year head start before finally facing the voters in 2006. So the legislature changed the law.

Back in ’04, there was fairly intense jockeying among several of the state’s House members for the Kerry’s seat. But, of course, the special election never materialized. Presumably, the potential field for a special election this year would be similar, though there are two complicating factors. One is the possibility of a November special election, which would force House members to give up their seats to run. The other is the changed landscape of the House itself. Back in ’04, Republicans seemed to be in near-permanent control of the chamber, and Massachusetts’ Democrats were eager to move out. Now, with their party in charge, some of them have found new clout and prominence. Suddenly, becoming a freshman senator may not seem so alluring.

That said, here’s a look at who would be likely to run should there be a vacancy.

House members (by district):

John Olver: He definitely won’t run. Olver is 71 and virtually unknown outside of his western Massachusetts district. He has little money or clout in state politics and is generally considered the most vulnerable House member in 2012, when redistricting figures to cost the state a seat.

Richard Neal: He won’t run. The former mayor of Springfield is, like Olver, virtually unknown in the more populous east and has made no moves to suggest a statewide campaign is in his future.

Jim McGovern: He won’t run. The 48-year-old McGovern is clearly ambitious, but he has trained his sights on the House Rules Committee, where his now the second-ranking Democrat, behind New York’s 78-year-old Louise Slaughter. McGovern owes his quick career trajectory to his mentor, the late Joe Moakley, himself a former Rules chairman. Moakley was dying of cancer in 2001 when he secured a promise from the then minority leader, Richard Gephardt, to place McGovern on the committee.

Barney Frank: He may run—and he definitely would have back in ’05, had Kerry won the presidency. Since then, however, Frank has seen his influence in the House increase exponentially. With the Democrats in control, he now chairs the powerful Financial Services Committee, making him one of the Democrats’ point men on the current mortgage crisis. Frank has a built-in liberal constituency in the affluent Boston suburbs, but he would not enter a Senate race as the favorite. At 68, the odds are that he’d take a pass on a Senate campaign that would require him to risk too much.

Niki Tsongas: She could run, but probably won’t. Tsongas is the widow of former Senator Paul Tsongas, who represented the state from 1978 to 1984. Given her familiar name and her potential ability to stand out in a field full of men, Tsongas would in some ways be a natural statewide candidate. But she only won her House seat last year in a special election (and by a closer-than-expected margin at that), so the timing is poor. Plus, she is a close political ally of her House predecessor, Marty Meehan, who would almost certainly be very interested in pursuing a Senate vacancy. Tsongas would certainly yield to him if it came to it.

John Tierney: He could run. The 56-year-old Tierney, a former divorce lawyer who was elected to represent the state’s North Shore in 1996, is not the House power player that Frank is, so he might be more inclined to risk his seat. But he’d be an even longer shot in a statewide race, given his lack of name recognition and a relatively weak political organization. If he’s forced to choose, Tierney would probably conclude that a safe House seat is good enough.

Ed Markey: He’d be very tempted. Markey is the dean of the Massachusetts delegation, first elected in 1976 when he was 30. And twice in that time, he has seemed ready to take a shot at the Senate. In 1984, he entered the race to succeed Tsongas, only to abruptly pull out when his prospects seemed iffy. And in 2004, he all but announced his candidacy to succeed Kerry, a bid that ended with Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush. Markey has always wanted to serve in the Senate, and a vacancy this year would represent is last realistic chance. But his seniority in the House, coupled with the Democratic takeover of the chamber, has placed the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee within his sights. In ’84, the prospect of being out of political office was unacceptable to Markey. He’d be more likely to take that chance today.

Michael Capuano: He won’t run. Capuano, the former mayor of Somerville who replaced Joe Kennedy in the House in 1998, has some influence there and seems more interested in running for governor sometime down the road than in pursuing a Senate seat.

Stephen Lynch: He’d probably run. Lynch, the most conservative Democrat in the state’s delegation, would appeal to the state’s working-class Catholic voters. His district includes South Boston, the Irish enclave that produced Moakley, Billy Bulger and Ray Flynn. In a crowded primary, the 53-year-old Lynch could emerge victorious by running to the right of the rest of the field.

Bill Delahunt: He might run. Delahunt showed interest in pursuing Kerry’s seat a few years back, and he lacks the internal clout of Frank and Markey that would make staying in the House more attractive. But he’d be a long shot in a statewide primary. His district, which includes the South Shore and Cape Cod, doesn’t necessarily provide him with the best base for a Democratic primary, and he is not very well known outside his district. His age—67 this summer—might work against him, too. Still, if he’s ever wanted to serve in the Senate, he might soon be presented with his one and only chance.

Other contenders:

There would be three major names to keep an eye on in the event of a vacancy:

Joe Kennedy:

Ted Kennedy’s nephew has been considered a future statewide candidate since he was elected to the House back in 1986 at the age of 34. He passed on gubernatorial bids in 1990 and 1994 and seemed certain to run in 1998, but backed out when two scandals—one involving the annulment of his first marriage and the other involving his brother Michael’s affair with an underage babysitter—forced him to reconsider. Kennedy gave up his House seat in 1998, but he hasn’t exactly disappeared from public view. He now runs Citizens Energy, the nonprofit company he originally started in 1979 to provide low-cost home heating oil to poor families. Kennedy is featured prominently in Citizens’ ads, which regularly blanket the Boston airwaves and that might as well serve as campaign spots. A chance to succeed his uncle might be the perfect occasion for Kennedy to end his retirement from elected politics.

Marty Meehan:

The 50-year-old Meehan resigned his House seat last year to become the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. But he held onto his $5 million campaign war chest, all of which would be transferable to a statewide campaign account. The commonly held view is that Meehan simply tired of waiting in the House, where he had served since 1993, for either Kerry or Kennedy to leave their seats. His strong support from the political establishment in the Lowell area and his name recognition from his high-profile campaign finance reform efforts in the House would serve him well in a statewide effort. The biggest question would be whether a vacancy this year would come too soon, since he’s been on the job at UMass-Lowell for less than a year now.

Martha Coakley:

Coakley is following a familiar pipeline in Massachusetts politics. First, she was the district attorney in Middlesex County, the state’s largest county (running from Cambridge all the way out to Boston’s far western suburbs). Then, she parlayed that role into a winning campaign for state attorney general, an office whose last three occupants have all sought statewide office. The main question for Coakley now seems to be when she will pull the trigger on a statewide campaign. A special election for the Senate would be perfect for her, since she wouldn’t have to risk her day job, (she’s not up for reelection until 2010). And as probably the only woman in the field, she would stand out easily from her all-male rivals. She’d be a very logical candidate.