'Should a Senate vacancy occur,' who might replace Kennedy?

The ailing senator is thinking about his succession. The likely candidates can be divided into Kennedys and non-Kennedys.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts (r.) shown here in this March 31 file photo on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sen. Edward Kennedy did not specifically mention his illness or indicate that his resignation was imminent when he sent a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers.

But in the letter, released, Thursday, he did ask for legislators to change the state’s procedure for filling vacant senate seats, allowing the governor to appoint a temporary replacement “should a Senate vacancy occur.”

Senator Kennedy went so far as to recommend that the governor obtain a personal promise that whomever he appoints will not run for Kennedy’s seat in the special election.

But who might be able to step in, both as temporary “caretakers” and as candidates in the special election?

Kennedy’s potential successors are often grouped into Kennedys and non-Kennedys.


The first caretaker offer would likely be extended to the senator’s wife Vicki Kennedy. “That would be good political manners,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. She would likely refuse given the timing of the offer, but she could be a contender in the special election.

Joe Kennedy, the senator’s nephew, and Philip Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, could also be on the shortlist for caretakers, according to Professor Berry.

While Joe Kennedy has also been mentioned as a candidate in a special election, he has long stated his disinterest in politics. Additionally, in the course of his work with Citizens Energy Corporation, a nonprofit organization that provides heating oil to low income families, he has developed a relationship with the controversial president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, which could also complicate his bid.

If a Kennedy were to run, “they’d be facing fierce competition,” says Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Massachusetts’ two senate seats have been totally locked up for decades now, and everybody with political ambition has been biding their time and waiting to run.”

Special election

The list of non-Kennedy candidates is long.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley “has all the marks of a potentially successful candidate,” says Professor Stewart. She has had previous success in statewide elections and could be regarded as “a breath of fresh air” for voters who are tired of the “insider baseball” nature of Massachusetts politics.

Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill and former Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan are also possibilities, according to Stewart, but so too are many members of the Massachusetts legislature.

Those with established statewide campaign organizations and leftover war chests from previous election fundraising are especially well positioned.

Reps. Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano have made “tried to make it be known that they’d like to run without it being offensive or insensitive to the Senator,” says Berry.

Gov. Deval Patrick is another Massachusetts politician who is known to have national ambitions, but his popularity in the state has fallen recently, making his candidacy a risky one.

“It could look like he’s running away from the [Governor’s] office,” Berry notes. “[Lt. Gov.] Tim Murray would be a more likely candidate, but he’s said he’s going to be loyal and stay with the governor.”

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