The Post-Kennedy Scramble

Ted Kennedy’s death has several immediate political implications.

One is the question of health care strategy for Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Without Kennedy, Democrats will only have 59 votes—one short of the 60 needed to kill Republican-led filibusters.

This would seem, then, to strengthen the case for using reconciliation—the filibuster-bypassing legislative device that Democrats have been threatening to employ—to push health care reform through the Senate. Doing so would cause Republicans to scream their heads off (not that they aren’t already doing that), but it would allow the Democrats to pass a plan with just 50 senators and Vice President Biden breaking a tie.

However, it’s possible that Kennedy’s seat will be filled very soon—if Kennedy’s dying request to change Massachusetts’ Senate succession law is granted.

As things stand now, a special election won’t be held for at least 145 days—January 2010, in other words. But Kennedy recently asked Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to support a change to the law, which would allow Patrick to appoint an interim senator while the special election campaign takes place. The interim senator would pledge not to run in the election.

Hours after Kennedy’s death, Patrick announced that he would sign the proposed change. Democrats hold staggering advantages over Republicans in the Massachusetts House (143 to 16) and Senate (35 to 5), so it seems likely that the law will change.

But Republicans are fighting the move hard, noting that it would mark the second time in five years that Democrats altered the Senate succession rules to help their own political interests. And they’ve received considerable support from editorial writers and other opinion-shapers.

The question now is whether Kennedy’s death will prompt voters to shrug off these concerns and to accept the change as a tribute to Kennedy. If polls show solid support for the plan in the next few days, it will likely sail through the legislature and into law very quickly.

If that happens, then Patrick would presumably choose to appoint to the Senate some ambitionless elder statesman of the state’s Democratic Party. Michael Dukakis, the 75-year-year-old former governor and presidential candidate, would be a logical choice. So, perhaps, would Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy (although there is also talk that she might run in the special election).

The presence of that appointee in Washington would again make it possible—at least theoretically—for Democrats to pass health care without resorting to reconciliation. It would still be tricky, with a handful of conservative Democrats threatening to vote against a bill with a public option, but at least on paper Democrats would have the 60 votes they need to kill a filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority.

Whether there’s an interim senator or not, there will be a special election between 145 and 160 days of today—middle to late January, in other words. Patrick will soon set the official date. The primaries will be held six weeks before the general election—late November or early December.

In reality, the new senator will probably be chosen in the Democratic primary. The state G.O.P. hasn’t fielded a competitive Senate candidate since Bill Weld challenged John Kerry in 1996, and it last won a Senate race in 1972, with Ed Brooke. The Republican bench is also exceedingly thin and the party will be much more focused on next year’s governor’s race—which has already attracted two Republican candidates and which the G.O.P. has a legitimate chance of winning.

So the action will be on the Democratic side. And the shape of the field will depend greatly on the decisions of two Kennedy family members: Victoria Reggie, Ted’s widow, and Joe, Ted’s nephew (and Bobby’s son) and a former six-term congressman.

The consensus among Massachusetts Democrats now seems to be that Joe, who has maintained public visibility by starring in glitzy television ads for the non-profit energy company he runs, is far more likely to run than Victoria.

In many ways, it would be the campaign that Bay Staters have been waiting for him to run for years. In 1986, at the age of 34, he won the House seat of the retiring Tip O’Neill. Back then, the main question was when he would give it up to run for statewide office. He skipped the 1990 governor’s race, wisely sat out 1994 (Weld ended up winning re-election with 71 percent that year), then set his sights on 1998.

With Weld on his way out (he ended up resigning for an abortive bid to be the ambassador to Mexico in 1997) the path seemed clear for Joe, but a series of scandals—one involving his divorce from his wife, one statutory rape allegations against his brother Michael—prompted him to abandon the campaign. Shortly thereafter, he decided not to seek re-election to the House in 1998, either.

While it’s been more than 10 years since his name was on a ballot anywhere in Massachusetts, Joe would be the clear favorite to win his uncle’s seat if he were to run. The sentimental appeal of his candidacy would be strong. However, he only represented a fraction of the state in Congress, and with independents free to participate in Democratic primaries, there would probably be room for other candidates.

Martha Coakley, who was elected attorney general in 2006, would be very likely to enter the race. The Massachusetts A.G.’s office has been a rich breeding ground for ambitious politicians (seven of the past eight A.G.’s have gone on to run for either governor or the U.S. Senate). She has privately communicated a strong interest in the race and, especially if multiple male candidates enter, would benefit as the sole female aspirant.

Also keep an eye on Marty Meehan, who represented the Merrimack Valley (Lowell area) in Congress from 1992 to 2007. Meehan nearly ran for governor in 2002 but backed out at the last minute. He resigned from the House in 2007 to become the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, but many saw the move as a way of getting out of a job he was bored with while keeping himself in play for any future statewide openings.

The 52-year-old Meehan has more than $5 million in the bank from his House days and his good government credentials—campaign finance reform and tobacco regulation were his pet issues in Congress—play well with the suburban voters who could swing a crowded primary.

The special election would also be a free shot for any of the state’s ten Democratic congressmen, all of whom could return to their safe House seats if they were to lose. Especially if Joe and Victoria Reggie Kennedy opt not to run, the race could look very attractive to some of them.

In particular, Stephen Lynch, a 54-year-old socially conservative Democrat from South Boston, is worth watching. Lynch actually announced his candidacy for the Senate on Election Night 2004, when exit polls initially showed Senator John Kerry winning the presidential race. In a crowded field filled with liberal Democrats, Lynch could monopolize the old Ed King wing of the party, which could be enough to win. But the presence of a Kennedy in the race would eat severely into his base.

Barney Frank, 69, and Ed Markey, 63, were also ready to run back in ’04, but their situations are different now: With Democrats back in control of the House, they suddenly occupy relevant and powerful positions there. The Senate may be more prestigious, but would either really want to give up his current clout to be a freshman?

Other House members, like Jim McGovern and Bill Delahunt, would be less likely to run. But in a wide-open field, who knows?