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Senate Makeover Could Cost MA Clout in Washington

Saturday, December 22, 2012


With John Kerry's nomination to Secretary of State, the Commonwealth's Senate delegation will have undergone a complete makeover in just a few short years, and how much pull the Bay State will have in the upper house remains an open question.

The late Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was the fourth-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, with nearly 47 years of uninterrupted tenure on Capital Hill, and he was the second most senior senator by the time of his death. Kennedy already had more than two decades of Senate experience under his belt by the time Lieutenant Governor Kerry became Senator Kerry in 1985. Another two dozen years would pass before Kennedy's death in August of 2009 would bring a new face from Massachusetts to the Senate.

Musical Senate Seats

Scott Brown would go on to defeat Attorney General Martha Coakley in a 2010 special election to succeed Kennedy, becoming the first Republican Senator elected from the Bay State since 1972, but his stint in Washington proved to be short-lived, at least for now, when he lost his bid for reelection last month to Harvard Law professor and now Democratic Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren.

Warren, a consumer advocate and political newcomer, stood to benefit from serving alongside Kerry, who has racked up nearly 28 years in the Senate and is currently the 9th most senior senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. But President Barack Obama's election to a second term and the decision by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to step down led to Obama nominating Kerry to take over the cabinet position on Friday.

With Senate approval for Kerry's nomination widely seen as little more than a formality, Massachusetts is almost certainly headed for another special election in 2013 to finish out the outgoing senator's term, only to be followed by yet another Senate race in 2014 when Kerry's six-year term expires.

Seniority Lost

In just three years, the Massachusetts delegation will have gone from a combined 60 years of Senate experience between Kennedy and Kerry in 2009 to less than a full six-year term.

"I think there's some reason to be concerned about the state's clout in the Senate," said Robert Boatright, an associate professor of Political Science at Clark University.

"Massachusetts has a House delegation capable of getting things for the state, but they operate in a chamber controlled by a party with no reason to be friendly to Massachusetts. With all of it's seniority in the Senate gone, Massachusetts would be left with two junior people, one of whom has some enemies in the financial sector."

Interims and Unending Campaigns

Once Kerry formally vacates his Senate seat, Governor Deval Patrick will be tasked with appointing an interim replacement until a special election can be held. Patrick previously appointed an interim to Kennedy's seat who would not for a full term in the subsequent special election, and the governor has said he do the same this time around, but Boatright expressed doubts about whether Patrick would follow through on such an appointment after Brown wrested the seat from Democratic hands in 2010.

At the same time, potential Democratic candidates were queueing up before Obama's nomination was official, and the list seems to grow longer by the day. With only a few months to gear up for a special election, the party may not be able to afford a prolonged or divisive primary race.

"Choosing someone serious for the interm appointment resolves some of the conflict that would emerge in the primary," said Boatright.

"It made sense not to do that last time because Patrick still had to run for reelection and didn't want to make enemies. But I think there's less of a reason for him to do that this time, despite what he says." 

Appointing an interim who will run in the special election may make for an easier campaign in 2013, but they would still have to do it all over again the next year when the Senate seat comes up for reelection.

"The most attractive Democratic candidate will be someone who can raise millions of dollars now and not put the phone down until 2014," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute and associate professor of Government at American University. "Running statewide in back-to-back elections in less than 24 months is incredibly difficult."

Brown appears to be at the top of the Republican short list for Senate, and a WBUR/MassINC poll released this week found him ahead of likely Democratic candidates by a fairly wide margin. However, both Boatright and Lawless said the results did not mean much.

"It’s important not to put too much emphasis on head-to-head match-ups right now because the candidates against whom Brown is paired do not have statewide name recognition," said Lawless. "Once they’d launch a campaign and introduce themselves to the voters, then the gap would likely close quite quickly."

At the same time, Brown just lost to Warren last month by a fairly decisive margin, despite his incumbent status.

"This suggests that the Democratic advantage in party identification and registration will once again benefit Brown’s opponent," Lawless said. "After all, the 2012 race garnered national attention and national resources, and Brown was still unable to get reelected. It’s unclear why he would have an advantage against a Democrat just a few months later."


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