Politics & Poker: Kennedy Special Lacks Ingredients for Marquee Battle

Posted September 14, 2009 at 4:38pm

The thrill is gone.

Just days ago, the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) looked as if it would be one for the ages — much like Kennedy himself.

[IMGCAP(1)]But with big names pulling out of the contest in the last week, from former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D) to Reps. Ed Markey (D) and John Tierney (D) to former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card (R), the race is looking a little less exciting.

Is it insensitive to be saying something like this so soon after Kennedy’s death? Of course. But the simple reality is that a vacancy of the magnitude of Kennedy’s can do amazing things for a state’s political environment. After all, this is the first Senate vacancy in Massachusetts in a quarter century, and just the second since 1966. Opportunities like this are very rare indeed. By all accounts, people up and down the Bay State political food chain are trembling with the possibilities.

Given the fact that the special election is taking place in January, when no one who might run would have to sacrifice a safe seat, it’s a wonder that more people haven’t jumped into the fray — though the timing of the race also means that there won’t be the kind of full-scale housecleaning that there was last year in New Mexico, when Sen. Pete Domenici (R) decided not to seek a seventh term. All three House Members in the Land of Enchantment ran for Domenici’s seat, leading to an unprecedented year of intrigue and upheaval.

Make no mistake, a special election Democratic primary in Massachusetts featuring state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has already declared her candidacy, and Reps. Stephen Lynch and Mike Capuano, who have pulled candidacy papers, will be fun to watch and hard to handicap. No doubt Kennedy, who was acutely aware of the tribal aspects of Massachusetts Democratic politics, would have enjoyed it himself. But it lacks, at least for the moment, that free-for-all, prepare-for-the-apocalypse feeling that some open-seat and special elections engender.

Of course, it could be a history-making election if Coakley becomes the Bay State’s first female Senator — for all its perceived liberalism, the political world in Massachusetts, at least at the highest reaches, is as chauvinistic as anyplace else, if not more so. If Lynch wins, hard as it may be to truly say this of a Member of Congress, he’ll be one of the few blue-collar Members of the Senate. And Capuano, if elected, would be the first Italian-American Senator in Massachusetts history.

Rather than New Mexico 2008, the special election feels a little more like Maryland 2006, when Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) retired after five terms. In the wake of his announcement, five of the state’s six Democratic House Members quickly said they were contemplating running — quickening pols’ pulses from Oxon Hill to Reisterstown, as visions of open House seats across the state danced in their heads.

In the end, though, only then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) ran. Worse yet, from the perspective of those thirsting for new blood, Cardin was replaced in the House by a Sarbanes — now-Rep. John Sarbanes (D), the ex-Senator’s son. Still, the 2006 cycle wasn’t totally without upheaval in Maryland, as the incumbent governor and state comptroller lost re-election bids and the long-serving attorney general retired, creating opportunities down the ballot.

When Cardin won, he made history by becoming the longest-serving House Member ever to be elected to the Senate, after toiling in the House for 20 years. That’s a record that Markey would have shattered if he had run in and won the upcoming special election — he was elected to the House in 1976. Another opportunity for intrigue lost.

Every time a senior Senator dies or retires, it confers a new kind of status on the state’s junior Senator. Thus Jeff Bingaman (D) became New Mexico’s senior Senator this year after 25 years of serving with Domenici. John Kerry (D) is now Massachusetts’ senior Senator after a quarter century behind Kennedy.

Today, Jay Rockefeller (D) remains West Virginia’s junior Senator after 25 years in the body. Next among the most senior junior Senators are Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was elected in 1986, and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who was elected in 1988. Fritz Hollings (D) waited 36 years before becoming South Carolina’s senior Senator, then retired less than two years later. By contrast, freshman Mark Udall (D-Colo.) became his state’s senior Senator earlier this year after just a couple of weeks on the job.

Though his death will be felt for many years and in many places, this is hardly the first time Kennedy has left other politicians scrambling. Every time he resisted entreaties to run for president or vice president, others rushed to fill the void, and Kennedy usually watched with detached fascination — though sometimes he played a role in shaping the field behind the scenes. According to “Marathon,— Jules Witcover’s seminal book on the 1976 presidential campaign, Kennedy was less than thrilled when his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver sought the Democratic presidential nomination that year. And it has been widely reported that four years earlier, Kennedy held open the possibility of becoming then-Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) running mate, just to prevent McGovern from selecting then-Boston Mayor Kevin White as his No. 2. (That honor, coincidentally, went to Shriver.)

No doubt Kennedy could live with Coakley, Lynch or Capuano as his successor — or at the very least he would recognize the merits in all three. But just as certainly, he would prefer to see a member of his own family replace him. And to be honest, the all-but-certain absence of a Kennedy in the special election is a disappointment to many of us spectators as well.