Can Dems hold Kerry's seat?

A heated Democratic primary might be the party's best shot at defeating the presumptive favorite, Scott Brown

Published January 29, 2013 12:44PM (EST)

Typically, the view of party leaders is that primaries are best avoided. Better to coalesce around a consensus candidate early, help that candidate amass a mighty bankroll, and focus the attention of volunteers, activists and other stakeholders on the general election. But that is not the prevailing attitude among Massachusetts Democrats as they face the state’s third Senate election in three years.

John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state will come either Tuesday or Wednesday, but it’s such a formality that the Massachusetts secretary of state has already gone ahead and scheduled the special election to replace him, with primaries in April and the final vote on June 25. Right now, there’s only one declared candidate from either party: Ed Markey, a Democratic congressman from outside Boston. But Democrats are convinced that Scott Brown, the Republican who won a January 2010 special election only to lose to Elizabeth Warren last fall, is going to jump in the race – and because of that, they are hoping that a second Democrat will also enter the fray to battle Markey in a primary.

This is not, by and large, because they don’t like and support Markey. The 66-year-old congressman has already racked up endorsements from Kerry, Vicki Kennedy and several other statewide elected officials. He’s also the preferred choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and with his lengthy and reliably progressive record, he figures to be an acceptable candidate to many of the party’s key coalition groups.

What Democrats wonder about, though, is his work ethic as a candidate. Markey was elected to the House in 1976, but the state’s partisan bent and a series of favorable redistricting rounds have insulated him from a serious electoral challenge for decades. The last time he faced a suspenseful contest, in fact, was when Kerry’s Senate seat was last open – back in 1984, when the late Paul Tsongas declined to seek a second term. Markey was one of several Democrats to enter the race to succeed him, but early polling showed him lagging behind Kerry and then-Rep. James Shannon, prompting Markey to back out of the race and return to his safe House seat.

Call around to Massachusetts Democrats and you’ll hear common concerns: Is Markey going to treat this race like just another House race – or is he really going to fight for it? And does he even know to fight for it?

These fears reflect Brown’s strengths as a candidate. When he was elected three years ago, Democrats approached the race with the assumption that their primary would pick the next senator. Thus was the Democratic contest a low-key affair. Martha Coakley, who had racked up solid name recognition and a decent reputation as attorney general, jumped out to a big lead in polling, and most Democrats were content to leave it there. The state hadn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972 (and that Republican, Ed Brooke, had been a very liberal Republican), so there was no reason to worry about Coakley’s electability. She coasted to the nomination, promptly treated herself to a now-infamous vacation and, well, the rest is history.

No one thinks Markey will be that incompetent as a candidate, but Democrats widely agree that Brown – if he runs – will begin the race with a lead and will never fall that far below 50 percent. Even though he lost to Warren by 8 points last fall, he retains enviable personal popularity, and turnout in the special election will be much lower with no presidential race on the ballot. Beating him will require the Democratic nominee to be at the top of his game – to seek out and exploit Brown’s vulnerabilities every day, to avoid whatever traps he sets, and to minimize self-inflicted wounds.

This is where the desire for a primary comes in. The endorsements Markey has won to date suggest a coronation within the party – a coronation that could breed complacency. But if he’s forced to work, to fight for the nomination, the thinking goes, that will leave him in far better shape to step into the ring with Brown. The good news for primary-seeking Democrats is that there is a candidate on the horizon: Stephen Lynch, a congressman from South Boston. A former ironworker, Lynch has strong ties to organized labor, but also skews to the right on cultural issues. He also cast a vote against the Affordable Care Act in ‘10.

A Lynch-Markey primary would call to mind the liberal/conservative divide that defined the memorable Michael Dukakis/Ed King intraparty clashes of 1978 and 1982. But the state has changed in the three decades since then, and Markey is probably more ideologically suited to today’s Massachusetts Democratic Party. He’d be the favorite in a race against Lynch.

But Lynch is a crafty campaigner; his career was made in part by running against what was then the most powerful force in South Boston politics – the Bulger family – to win a state Senate seat in 1996. Five years later, he beat out several more liberal candidates to win the Democratic nomination to replace the late Rep. Joe Moakley. Lynch sent mixed signals about his intentions last week, but he is widely expected to jump in the race. And especially if he can convince some of the state’s more influential union leaders to side with him, he could give Markey a serious run. Serious enough to win the nomination? Most Democrats doubt that. But serious enough to make Markey a stronger candidate against Brown, whose natural constituency overlaps with Lynch’s? That’s what Democrats are betting on.

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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Ed Markey John Kerry Opening Shot Scott Brown Steve Lynch