Days after President Obama nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as his next Secretary of State, a host of names new and old have started to swirl as to his successor. Recent polling by WBUR stirred fears among Democrats that Scott Brown, who recently lost his seat in one of 2012's most expensive races to Elizabeth Warren, could regain his foothold and win in another special election.
Brown led every candidate polled against him, but analysts have been quick to point out that such early numbers are notoriously poor predictors of electoral success. The real questions of interest to candidates may have been the first — not whether they'd win in a hypothetical race held today, but whether they're viewed favorably (or known at all) by Massachusetts voters. That question sets a baseline for any prospective candidate, so s/he knows how much work lies ahead on the campaign trail.
With 58% favorability, deep name recognition and a battle-tested staff, Scott Brown is certainly the likeliest Republican candidate today. But Democrats would be unwise to take their time finding the right person to take him on. Brown's battle-tested staff is also a tired staff; his donors have little to show for deep investments in 2012. Democrats should take the opportunity to build off their November momentum and run a candidate who can hold the seat for the next 20 years.
Among the names polled, which were only a handful of those in contention, only those who had previously run a statewide campaign had name recognition on par with Brown. That comes as no surprise and should not dissuade funders or candidates; Martha Coakley's 48% favorability doesn't make her any more inspiring to those who recall the debacle of her last campaign.
The Veteran — Veteran Congressman Ed Markey would bring decades of experience and political savvy to the enate, where his national profile as a progressive leader on energy and environmental issues could help climate change get the attention it badly needs as an urgent national issue. First elected to serve the northern Boston suburbs in 1976, Markey would be a junior senator with senior-level experience into delivering not only on national issues, but delivering for Massachusetts voters who need to regain an edge in the new wave of technological manufacturing. If there's a potential senator with the skill to balance those priorities, it's Markey.
Downside: As such a known D.C. actor, Markey's experience could be used against him by Brown — who was attacked primarily on the basis of his short voting record. Markey would need a new playbook to throw Brown off his game and win statewide.
The Fighter — Somerville native Mike Capuano has served since 1999, and was one of only a few members of Congress to oppose the PATRIOT Act enacted in 2001, which served not just courage, but foresight. Neither he nor Markey poll strongly against Brown, but Capuano's name recognition is slightly higher — and he tested the waters recently in the last Democratic primary, before bowing out to Warren.
Downside: Republicans know they have a charismatic, likeable (and liked) candidate in Brown Capuano might be the better fighter, but he'll have to prove that he's the more authentic, trustworthy man to win.
The Next Big Thing — Setti Warren started to make a bigger name for himself statewide before bowing out to Elizabeth Warren in the 2012 Democratic primary. The Newton mayor stands apart as the first elected African-American mayor in the Commonwealth, a veteran Naval intelligence officer who served in Iraq, and a rising star with important ties to outgoing Senator John Kerry. Setti Warren's name wasn't among those tested in the WBUR poll, but don't hold it against him; after all, that poll could make you think Martha Coakley should be the nominee. Polls can be misleading.
Downside: An unknown quantity, Setti will have to introduce himself to Massachusetts voters quickly and convincingly — and that means money for big media buys and a lot of up-front investment by known leaders who vouch for him. The 42 year-old Warren's youth also means that he could be a senator for quite a while, and that spells trouble in a primary fight as more experienced candidates vie for their turn at the top. The primary is the real fight for Warren, and the stars in party politics have to aligned and see him through unbruised by other candidates in order to beat Brown in the general.
The X Factor — Although the Kennedys have bowed out of this race, their endorsement could prove critical to any primary candidate. Keep an eye on Vicky Kennedy, widow of the late Senator Ted Kennedy; she may serve as a 'placeholder' senator until the special election is held, and her voice will certainly help raise funds and support among the party leaders. Despite reports to the contrary, actor Ben Affleck has confirmed that he's not in the race. He isn't the only celebrity with local ties; the hills of western Massachusetts are home to another progressive darling who could steal Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin's thunder as the only openly gay senator: Rachel Maddow.
Scott Brown used such speculation to fundraise early in 2012, raising the hackles of those who see Maddow as the liberal incarnate of "lamestream' media." Maddow ran a full-page ad in the Boston Globe to deny Brown's claim, saying she's quite content in the job she has.
Race Rating: Unlikely. But don't be surprised if you get another fundraising email from Scott Brown about it.