John Kerry and the ghost of Scott Brown

It's possible, but fears of a GOP comeback in Massachusetts shouldn't affect Obama's choice for secretary of state

Published November 13, 2012 1:15PM (EST)

Scott Brown                    (AP/Steven Senne)
Scott Brown (AP/Steven Senne)

Apparently, Barack Obama is serious about rewarding John Kerry with a top Cabinet post in his second administration. The Massachusetts senator, who delivered a rousing convention speech in Charlotte and played Mitt Romney in the president’s debate prep sessions, is reportedly under consideration to run either the Defense or State Departments.

Right now, most of the speculation is focused on the Pentagon, with Obama preferring to place his longtime friend Susan Rice at State. But Republican attacks on Rice over the Benghazi episode threaten to produce a bloody confirmation battle if Obama taps her. Democrats will have 55 votes (counting Angus King and Bernie Sanders) in the Senate come January, so in theory Obama would have the numbers to win that battle. But some of those Democrats – like, for instance, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – could face home state pressure to defect if it became a clearly partisan fight.

Maybe Obama, emboldened by his victory last week, will embrace a confrontation with the GOP over Rice. But if he’s dissuaded, then Kerry could be his fallback option. And if not State, then Kerry is being floated as a potential replacement for Leon Panetta at the Defense Department.

Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would obviously prefer the more prestigious State post. For the first two decades of his Senate career, he sought to position himself for the presidency, but since his loss to George W. Bush in 2004 he’s carved out a role as his party’s point man in the Senate on international affairs – and has made little secret of his hopes for a career-capping run as secretary of state in a Democratic administration. He’ll turn 69 next month, so this is probably his last, best hope, and there’s reason to believe he’d accept a Defense appointment as a consolation prize, if it comes to it.

The stumbling block is this: If Kerry takes an administration post, it will open his Senate seat and trigger a special election sometime in 2013. And that, Democrats fear, could open the door for Scott Brown, who was defeated by Elizabeth Warren last week, to make a comeback.

There is something to be said for this fear. While he lost last week, Brown retains a committed following and remains one of the more popular politicians in Massachusetts -- and definitely the most popular Republican. And in a special election, voter turnout would be down significantly from the presidential year swell that sank him last week, and the voting universe would probably look more like the one that elected him in January 2010. And while Brown’s addition wouldn’t change the Senate’s partisan balance next year, it could have ramifications in 2014, when Democrats will face a tough map and the prospect of several lost seats.

But even though Brown would be formidable, the threat he poses to Democrats may be overstated.

For one thing, last week’s result affirmed Massachusetts’ long-standing aversion to electing Republicans to federal office. Not only was Brown turned out, but Democrats won each of the state’s nine U.S. House seats – the ninth straight election they pulled off a complete House sweep. This was somewhat surprising, because one of their incumbents, John Tierney, was dogged by questions about his knowledge of a family gambling ring that resulted in his wife’s conviction on tax fraud charges. Tierney was opposed by an unusually strong Republican candidate, an openly gay, pro-choice former state legislator and candidate for lieutenant governor, and was widely seen as headed for defeat. But the strength of his party label – and the weakness of his opponent’s – saved him, and Tierney held on by a point.

Brown’s 5-point special election win over Martha Coakley in ’10 remains the only victory for Republicans in a race for federal office in Massachusetts since 1994. He’s also the only Republican to win one of the state’s Senate seats since 1972. Some unique circumstances contributed to his surprise victory over Coakley. He’d by no means be a shoo-in in a special election next year – especially since, unlike in ’10, Democrats wouldn’t take the race for granted. Already, there is talk that Gov. Deval Patrick wouldn’t use the state’s interim appointment law to anoint a caretaker senator during the campaign – that this time, he’d appoint someone who’d run for the seat, giving that individual some of the advantages of incumbency.

The bigger question, though, is whether Brown would even want to run. In his concession speech last week, he made it clear that he’s not done in politics. But he also has to pick carefully. Another statewide defeat could change his image from “electable Republican” to “loser.” Brown just learned the hard way about the unique challenges that the GOP label poses in federal races in Massachusetts. He was – and is – personally popular and relentlessly pitched himself as an independent, bipartisan voice. But Warren continually invoked all of the votes Brown had cast that made him indistinguishable from the average Senate Republican and asked voters if they wanted to empower Jim Inhofe.

And even if he won a special Senate race next year, it’s not like Brown would be in the clear. He’d have to run again in 2014, when Kerry’s normal term would be up, and so he’d immediately face the same impossible balancing act he faced for the past two years – trying to remain a somewhat loyal Republican in Washington without seeming like one to Massachusetts voters.

A more attractive race for Brown might be for governor in ’14. Patrick has already said he won’t run again, and the GOP label is less of a hindrance in gubernatorial contests, as Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney can attest. Brown may be more temperamentally suited for the Senate than an executive role, but that’s not his best political bet.

In other words, it’s very possible that Obama could pick Kerry and that Brown would simply say “no thanks” to a Senate campaign – in which case Democrats would be overwhelmingly favored to hold the seat in the special election. And even if he runs, he’d be beatable. It’s probably not a risk that should give Obama cold feet about choosing Kerry. And so far, it looks like it isn't.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Deval Patrick Elizabeth Warren John Kerry Massachusetts Opening Shot Scott Brown