With Joe Kennedy Out, a Real Massachusetts Donnybrook

Joe Kennedy, the son of Bobby who was marked as a future statewide candidate in Massachusetts from the instant he claimed a House seat in 1986, just took himself out of the running for his Uncle Ted’s vacant Senate seat.

The move, not a major surprise to those who have followed the 56-year-old Kennedy’s career closely, means three things:

1) Joe Kennedy will never actually launch that statewide campaign we’ve been talking about for years.

He had a clear shot at the Democratic gubernatorial nomination back in 1990, when Mike Dukakis stepped down and a host of uninspiring would-be successors—Evelyn Murphy, Francis X. Bellotti, and Jack Flood—stepped forward. When their deficiencies became apparent in late 1989, party leaders tried to nudge Kennedy into the race. He toyed with it, then passed, and the Democratic vacuum was instead filled by John Silber, the outspoken Boston University president—whose temperament cost him a winnable general election race against Republican William Weld.

With Weld’s popularity soaring, Kennedy wisely passed on the ’94 governor’s race (which Weld ended up winning by a record-shattering 42 points), then set his sights on 1998. All systems were go (facing token opposition and running in one of the safest Democratic districts in the country, Kennedy poured more than a million dollars into fancy television ads for his ’96 House campaign) and with Weld skipping town for an abortive bid to be ambassador to Mexico, Kennedy was the clear favorite to win the state’s top job.

But scandal—in the form of his ex-wife’s claims that he bullied her into seeking an annulment from the Catholic Church and charges that his brother Michael had slept with his underage baby-sitter—caused him to reconsider and bow out. Kennedy went a step further, too, and also decided to give up his House seat and to return to Citizens Energy, the non-profit company he’d run before entering Congress.

Since then, Kennedy has maintained visibility (he stars in Citizens’ ads) but passed on every chance to jump back into the game: He said no to a gubernatorial bid in 2002 (the Democratic nomination was wide open), showed no interest in the 2004 jockeying for John Kerry’s Senate seat (back when it looked like Kerry might win the presidency), and sat out the 2006 governor’s race.

The political ambition that fueled him in the late ’80s and early ’90s was apparently cooled by the scandals of 1997. If ever there were a moment for Joe Kennedy to return to politics, this is it: He’d still be young enough to rack up some seniority in the Senate and his family name will never be more of an asset than it is now. With this decision to pass—the fourth time he’s said no since leaving the House 11 years ago—we can safely say that Joe Kennedy is no longer a future candidate for anything.

2) The race becomes inviting for many more candidates.

Well, at least on the Democratic side—the only side that really counts in a state that last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972. (The very moderate, if not liberal, Ed Brooke.)

Before today’s announcement, two Democrats had already taken steps to run: Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressman Stephen Lynch. These are the only two candidates who would have been willing to run against Joe Kennedy—Coakley because she could (theoretically) rally the women’s vote, and South Boston’s Lynch because his cultural conservatism and blue-collar background makes him (potentially) appealing to the old Ed King wing of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. (Plus, Lynch is unafraid of taking on legacy candidates: His political career was made, in part, by beating the son of the legendary Billy Bulger in a State Senate race in South Boston in 1996.)

Had Kennedy run, he would have been the third and final entrant. There simply wouldn’t have been oxygen for another candidate. Broadly speaking, Coakley would have had women and good-government suburbanites; Kennedy would have had senior citizens, blacks and the Kennedy-legacy vote; and Lynch would have had the culturally conservative white ethnics. Other candidates might have appeal to some of these groups, but they would have suffocated.

Now, though, the doors have been flung wide open. Not only are more voters up for grabs, but without a Kennedy in the race, it will be far easier to raise money and get noticed. In particular, look out for:

* Ed Markey: Conventional wisdom says to scratch him, since he’s carved out a real power center in the House (he’s been there since 1976) and because—at 63—he won’t want to trade that clout for the rank of freshman in the Senate.

But conventional wisdom doesn’t remember the spring of 1984, when Ed Markey was a 37-year-old up-and-comer with a bright future in statewide (and maybe even national) politics. That year, Paul Tsongas, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, unexpectedly decided not to seek re-election to his Senate seat, and Markey jumped in the race to succeed him. But so did a lot other Democrats—like John Kerry (then the lieutenant governor), James Shannon (Markey’s rival up-and-comer, a 32-year-old congressman), David Bartley (a former state House Speaker) and Michael Connolly (then the Massachusetts secretary of state).

Markey blinked. If he lost the Senate primary, he’d be out of politics completely, since he’d have to give up his House seat. So he decided to wait for another day. But for the next quarter-century, another day never came, and during that time Markey went from young-up-and comer to aging House lifer. This is the first time a Democratic Senate nomination had been open in Massachusetts since then.

Markey may pass this time. But it’s worth noting that, for all of his clout in the House, he doesn’t chair a standing committee. He let the girl get away in 1984, something he’s surely thought about a few times since then. Now he has one more chance. This decision probably won’t be as easy for him as many believe.

* Michael Capuano: The sixth-term congressman from Somerville won a 10-way Democratic primary to replace Joe Kennedy in 1998. (Full disclosure: As an idealistic college student, I was a worthless functionary in the campaign of one of Capuano’s opponents in that race.)

Capuano has long been interested in moving up, though he passed on the governor’s race in 2006. He will almost surely enter the Senate race now, especially since he won’t have to risk a House slot.

In theory, Capuano should have wide appeal among Democratic voters. His House district includes a mix of culturally conservative, working-class areas and neighborhoods populated with affluent liberals. But he’s only really been tested in that district once—the wild ’98 primary, which he won with 22 percent of vote (thanks to massive support in Somerville, where he was then mayor).

* Marty Meehan: The former congressman from Lowell gave up his seat in 2007, seemingly out of boredom with the House, where’d served since 1993. But it was clear that he retained statewide aspirations: He took a post as the chancellor of UMass-Lowell and opted to retain his hefty campaign war chest, worth nearly $5 million.

Because of his new job, Meehan has to be very careful about picking the right moment to jump back into politics: His employer doesn’t want him running for every available office and then returning to work when he loses. That’s a big part of the reason why he would have stayed out if Kennedy had run: The odds would have been too long.

But now there’s a lot more room. The Greater Lowell area would give Meehan a nice base, and his reformer credentials (campaign finance reform and tobacco were his two pet issues in Congress) would make him marketable to the same good-government types that Coakley will be counting on. If Meehan seems like a credible candidate—something his war chest will help him become—those good government voters may give him a look.

* Wild cards: The rest of the state’s all-Democratic House delegation will probably stay out of the race, and down-ballot statewide officials (like Secretary of State Bill Galvin) and members of the State Legislature will probably be intimidated by the big names that are already out there. But with Kennedy out, the field should swell now. We could be surprised at who else joins the fray.

3) Martha Coakley is now the clear front-runner.

The field may be wide open, but Coakley—barring a surprise—will be the only female in it. This is particularly significant since Massachusetts has such an awful track record of electing women to statewide office. Women’s groups have already rallied around Coakley, and you can expect their efforts to intensify. With multiple male candidates likely to run (but none of them with Kennedy’s star power), Coakley chances of victory look very good right now.