For the past six decades, it has been known simply as the "Kennedy seat," a Senate perch occupied and fiercely guarded by the first family of Massachusetts politics.
Now, Edward M. Kennedy's death sets the stage for a furious succession battle, the first such opening of a highly prized seat since the stateís junior senator, John Kerry, won election in 1984.
The shape of the race -- and the Kennedy political legacy -- will hinge on whether another Kennedy seeks to keep it in the family, and whether voters are looking to extend the dynasty.
Several prominent Democratic office-holders, including two members of Congress and the state's sitting attorney general, lead the list of potential contenders who have been quietly laying the groundwork for a campaign. It had been a politically delicate task, with Kennedy battling brain cancer. The Republican list of would-be candidates is considerably shorter.
Seasoned political analysts say the campaign will be defined by the decision that two potential candidates with the Kennedy surname -- the senator's wife, Victoria, and his nephew, former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II -- make in the coming weeks. Joseph Kennedy has not given a clear signal on his intentions; a Kennedy family confidant said last week that Victoria Kennedy is not interested in the seat.
The presence of a Kennedy could overshadow the other competitors and would very likely thin the Democratic field. Much of the stateís Democratic establishment -- its political operatives, activists, and consultants -- would be at their disposal. The formidable local Democratic fund-raising operation, which can tap into donors nationally, is likely to be with either one.
Hanging in the balance is the influence and power the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families have wielded in state and national politics for more than a century. The senator's death marks only the second time since 1947 that a Kennedy has not represented the state on Capitol Hill. The only exception was the two years -- 1961 and 1962 -- when a family friend held the seat vacated by John F. Kennedy, newly elected as president, until his younger brother claimed it in a 1962 election.
"The last powerful Kennedy in Massachusetts is gone," said Dan Payne, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic media consultant. Payne said the family's political history played out the way its patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had planned, but it may well have reached its end.
"What the family decides now will determine whether that influence will continue," Payne said.
State law requires Governor Deval Patrick to set a special election within 145 to 160 days after a Senate vacancy. A primary must be held six weeks before the general election. Before his death, the senator made a personal appeal to Patrick and state legislative leaders to change the law to allow Patrick to make a temporary appointment.
Two US representatives -- Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, and Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat -- have discreetly let it be known within Democratic circles they would like to run. Attorney General Martha Coakley has done much of the same, while also trying to expand her visibility.
Lynch is a conservative whose anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage views could alienate him from the largely liberal base that dominates Democratic primaries, but he would make a strong run at blue-collar voters. He has nearly $1.4 million in his political account and a reputation as a winner of tough fights. Lynch handily beat William F. Bulger Jr. in a special Democratic primary to fill William Sr.'s state Senate seat in 1996. He won his state House seat in 1994 by beating an incumbent Democrat, Paul Gannon.
Capuano is a tough-talking liberal who took over Joe Kennedy's Eighth District seat in 1999, and who could appeal both to working-class Democrats and the progressive base. He has $1.2 million in his account.
But Capuano would face tough competition from Coakley for liberal voters. She could also draw heavy support from women. Coakley insiders insist she will run even if a Kennedy does, while Capuano may bow out. Itís unclear what Lynch would do.
If no Kennedy joins the race, former US representative Martin T. Meehan, now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, may seriously consider running. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who resigned his seat in 2007 to take the university post, is sitting on a nearly $5 million war chest.
Other members of the stateís congressional delegation are either settled into powerful House positions or probably do not have the ambition or clout to run statewide, though the reality of such a rare opening could change their thinking.
Republicans might have a difficult time mounting a strong challenge. For the past 30 years, Massachusetts voters have rejected most GOP efforts to win seats in Congress. In addition, the party leadership and financial backers are gearing up for Charles D. Baker's gubernatorial quest and would be reluctant to divert resources to what the Republican rank and file might see as a lost cause.
The party could try to persuade former US Attorney Michael Sullivan to seek the post, but his close association with the Bush administration could burden his candidacy. State Senator Scott Brown of Wrentham has shown interest in a statewide race, but he has little experience or credentials in national affairs.
All this political drama will unfold over the next several weeks as the state and the nation pay tribute to the legendary Massachusetts senator.
The enduring attention paid to the passing of the last of the four Kennedy brothers would make it difficult for any potential non-Kennedy candidate to get traction if a Kennedy is in the race.
"It will be hugely powerful," said Will Keyser, a former communications director in the senator's office. "It will create an environment that would make it very hard to defeat a Kennedy family member."
If Victoria Reggie Kennedy decides she is interested in her late husband's post, analysts say, she would be a formidable candidate. She is a good public speaker and a political natural, having grown up in the brawling politics of Cajun country in Southwest Louisiana. She has been deeply involved in her husbandís professional life since they were married in 1992.
Still, analysts see potential problems with a Vicki Kennedy candidacy. One is that it could be difficult for her to pivot from the role of mourning widow to candidate, out glad-handing voters, holding media events, and participating in debates.
Joe Kennedy has told friends and associates that he is content in his life away from politics. But he has not closed the door on a potential candidacy, they say. He has kept up his public image with television ads promoting his low-cost home heating oil program for struggling families and the elderly. His federal campaign account, with $1.7 million, is active.
If his past experience in public life is any indication, his presence would make for a dynamic race. He has the ability to generate rock star-like excitement, with his blunt-talking charm and passion for causes. But he can also be clumsy, erratic, and undisciplined on the stump.
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