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How Vulnerable Is John Kerry’s Senate Seat?

The possibility that President Obama will select John Kerry for a Cabinet position—to lead either State or Defense—has caused worry among Democrats. Is Obama about to give back a Senate seat to the Republicans in a true-blue state, so soon after the Democrats wrenched one back from the Republican usurper, Scott Brown? The agita is understandable—Democrats are still bruised over the devastating 2010 experience of seeing the “Kennedy seat” lost to Brown in a special election, which cost the party its filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, greatly complicated the push for the Affordable Care Act, and foretold the party’s huge losses the following fall. More broadly, as Ezra Klein notes, the prospect of a Kerry nomination suggests that the White House has not learned from its experience in nominating elected Democrats for Cabinet positions without sufficient regard for the political consequences, as when it picked popular Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to lead Homeland Security, depriving her of the chance to challenge John McCain.

Part of the concern among Democrats is that none of the party’s potential candidates for Kerry’s seat would seem to have the firepower (and fundraising potential) of Elizabeth Warren. Among those being mentioned are Rep. Michael Capuano (who came in second to state attorney general Martha Coakley in the 2009 primary to take on Brown), Rep. Ed Markey, former Congressman Marty Meehan (now head of UMass-Lowell), U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and, yes, Coakley, who has managed to rebuild her reputation somewhat after the humiliation of the 2010 loss. Deval Patrick, the state’s popular governor, has knocked down the notion that he would go for the seat himself, saying he plans to serve out his term through 2014. And on the Republican side there’s Brown, of course, who despite his loss retains relatively strong favorability ratings in the state. He could decide that two Senate runs in three years is enough, and set his sights instead on running for governor in 2014. If so, there’s a chance Republicans would prevail on popular former Gov. Bill Weld, who has returned to the state after several years of high finance and detective novel-writing in New York.

But all of the talk about the various possible matchups might be beside the point. As the Democrats try to game out the risk of opening up the Kerry seat, the key factor to consider is context—that is, the circumstances in which the election to replace him would be held. Martha Coakley lost to Brown in 2010 in part because she was a deeply underwhelming candidate and because Brown offered a certain boy-next-door appeal. But she lost mainly because she was running in a low-turnout special election at a very impropritious moment for Democrats. Likewise, Warren knocked off Brown last week not just because she was a more feisty candidate than Coakley, but because she was running in a general election where the state's natural Democratic dominance would assert itself. This was what I kept hearing from veteran Democrats when I went up to Massachusetts to report on Warren’s midsummer struggles—even if she was having trouble finding her footing as a candidate, they said, one had to assume that she would benefit from high Democratic turnout in a presidential year. Yes, Brown would be able to peel off some of Barack Obama’s voters, but only so many


And that’s just what happened. When Brown beat Coakley in 2010, 52 to 47 percent, there were barely more than 2.2 million votes cast. When Warren won 54 to 46 percent last week, there were more than 3.1 million votes cast. The contrast is particularly stark in the urban centers where Democrats rack up big margins. In Springfield, some 28,000 people voted in 2010 and Coakley netted about 7,000 votes. Last week, nearly twice as many voted there and Warren netted almost 25,000 votes. In Boston, she netted 120,000 votes where Coakley had netted less than half that amount. Turnout in the city was 65 percent—way above the 43 percent turnout in 2010, and higher even than the 62 percent who turned out for Obama’s first election.

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What does this mean for a possible Kerry replacement? Well, on the one hand, that Democrats do need to worry about special elections, when the broader party base is less likely to turn out. But one also needs to keep in mind that the context for this special election (which would likely be held around June) would be much friendlier than the one in January 2010. Unless the tax and “fiscal cliff” negotiations go horribly awry for Obama, he and his party will be in a more favorable spot next spring than they were in late 2009 and early 2010. There is a chance that this time around, Patrick will not decree that his interim appointment to the open seat be forbidden from running in the special election, as he did in 2009 when he appointed longtime Kennedy aide Paul Kirk after the senator’s death. This would allow the interim Democrat to run with a slight sheen of incumbency and perhaps even preclude a costly primary. Finally, there is the fact that the electorate would be coming off a recent election where Warren and other Massachusetts Democrats drilled into the state’s many Democratic-leaning independent voters the importance of putting party over personality—even if voters liked Brown fine, they needed to consider the ramifications of giving Mitch McConnell another vote in the Senate. Presumably, this lesson would maintain a greater hold on voters next spring than it did in early 2010.

None of this settles the question of whether Obama should nominate Kerry—a question that should ride above all on whether Kerry, a notoriously aloof fellow, would actually be good at either Cabinet job. But it’s worth bearing in mind: for this Senate seat, it’s the context, stupid.

Addendum: The first comment below reminds me that I meant to mention that whoever won a special election for the seat next year would be up again in the fall of 2014, when Kerry's term expires.