The Kennedy Seat and the Coakley Era

Tomorrow night, we’ll learn the identity of Ted Kennedy’s successor in the U.S. Senate. Or, actually, we’ll learn the identity of his successor’s successor.

Eager to provide the White House with a 60th vote for health care this fall, the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts legislature voted to change the state’s succession law just after Kennedy’s death in August to allow Governor Deval Patrick to make an interim appointment while a special election played out.

Patrick signed the law change, snubbed Michael Dukakis, and picked Paul G. Kirk, who has attracted little notice since his September swearing-in–while providing the filibuster-killing 60th vote to bring Harry Reid’s health care legislation to the floor last week.

Technically, Kirk’s successor–who will hold the seat at least through the 2012 election, the end of Kennedy’s unexpired term–won’t be picked until the January 19 special election. But this is Massachusetts, where Republicans are as scarce as Yankees fans, and tomorrow’s Democratic primary is all that really matters.

There really isn’t much suspense. Barring a spectacular upset, Martha Coakley, the state’s first-term attorney general, will top the four-candidate field and become the state’s first-ever female senator.

Until now, female candidates in Massachusetts have enjoyed their only successes in down-ballot contests: for A.G. (Coakley in 2006); treasurer (Shannon O’Brien in 1998); lieutenant governor (Evelyn Murphy in 1986, Jane Swift in 1998, and Kerry Healy in 2002 – all running on tickets with men); and the U.S. House (Margaret Heckler from 1966 to 1982; Louise Day Hicks (“You know where I stand!“) from 1970 to 1972, and Niki Tsongas since 2007). Success in top-tier races has eluded them: Murphy, O’Brien, Swift and Healy all failed in gubernatorial bids (Swift and Murphy didn’t even make it to Primary Day).

So a Coakley win would be historic. But it wouldn’t mean much else. The only candidate to enter the race with statewide name recognition (and the sole woman running), Coakley has waged a deliberatively low-key front-runner’s campaign–heavy on platitudes and boilerplate rhetoric, light on specifics and innovative ideas. Her most notable pronouncement has been that she will vote against final passage of any health care bill that includes the abortion-restricting Stupak amendment.

Coakley may also benefit from a last-minute campaign appearance by Bill Clinton–part of his effort to repay politicians who stood with his wife in last year’s Democratic presidential race. Interestingly, Clinton also made a late trip to Massachusetts the last time there was a competitive Senate race–back in 1996, when he pitched in for John Kerry two days before the election. Kerry pulled away late in that race, defeating then-Governor William Weld by seven points.

If one of the other three candidates is going to pull an upset, it will be Mike Capuano, the 11-year congressman who has run aggressively and gobbled up some noteworthy endorsements (Dukakis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and most of the state’s House delegation). Capuano can be a compelling speaker, but he hasn’t done enough to differentiate himself from Coakley–and he’s resisted opportunities to confront her in debates.

Her position on the Stupak amendment, for instance, offered Capuano a chance to score points by arguing that health care reform is too important to be held hostage by single-issue constituencies. Instead, he ended up echoing her position – and making himself look like a flip-flopper in the process.  

For political junkies, Capuano’s pending defeat will be a disappointment. With a win, his 8th District House seat–representing one of the most heavily Democratic districts in the nation–would open up, prompting a wide-open Democratic race to succeed him. The last time the seat was open, when Joe Kennedy left the house in 1998, Capuano topped a 10-way field that included former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn with 22 percent of the vote. There’s plenty of pent-up ambition among 8th District politicos; but it looks like it won’t be unleashed anytime soon.

The race for third place could be close, with two other candidates heading in opposite directions. Stephen Pagliuca (“Pags,” as he prefers) began the race with zero name recognition, but quickly purchased it with an unrelenting television ad blitz. A Boston Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist, he pushed his support into the high teens in some polls, but revelations about his past donations to Republicans and the conduct of some of the companies he’s invested in halted his momentum.

In the meantime, Alan Khazei, who co-founded City Year and helped Clinton establish AmeriCorps, has gained traction with the Volvo-driving and NPR-listening wing of the state’s Democratic Party. Through his national contacts (including Michael Bloomberg), he’s had surprising fund-raising success and he even won the endorsement of the Boston Globe (for what that’s worth). If the primary was limited to voters in Left Fields, Khazei might have a chance to win. Instead, he’ll do well to crack double-digits and outpoll Pagliuca.

The Republican candidate will almost certainly be Scott Brown, one of only five G.O.P. state senators in the commonwealth. He is being challenged in the primary by Jack E. Robinson III, who is better known in state political circles as “The Tongue,” the nickname bestowed on him by a woman who said he showed up drunk for a blind date, guzzled a bottle of champagne, and then groped and forcibly French-kissed her as she tried to escape to her car.

Republicans hope that Brown can parlay a respectable showing in January into a run for a more winnable statewide office next year–possibly state treasurer.