Ask a Massachusetts Democrat to name candidates interested in John Kerry's Senate seat--a post he would vacate when he makes his expected move into President Obama's Cabinet--and they will readily offer a handful of possibilities.
Just don't ask them to pick out a front-runner.
The upcoming special election for Kerry's post has sparked plenty of speculation about which Democrats will seek to succeed him--but little clarity about which one stands the best chance to succeed. For now, Democratic leaders describe a list of hopefuls with strong party and political credentials but mostly without star power, charisma, and excitement.
And that raises another, more ominous question for Democrats as they begin the special election's primary: Regardless of who wins, are any of them capable of beating Scott Brown? The outgoing but still popular Republican senator hasn't publicly decided to run another Senate campaign, but most expect he will try to reclaim his old job.
Even though most Democrats aren't resigned to defeat, they concede that, to start, Brown would enter the race as the favorite. "He's very formidable in a special-election setting--obviously," said Daniel Cence, a Boston-based Democratic strategist.
Few candidates have publicly declared their interest, but any list of the top Democratic contenders starts with three House members: Reps. Edward Markey, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch. Capuano sought to run in the previous special election, falling to Martha Coakley. Markey is the dean of the Massachusetts delegation. Lynch is considered popular among unions, although his social-conservative views would be an obstacle in a Democratic primary.
The second-tier of prospective candidates includes a plethora of options. Democrats point to Reps. William Keating and Niki Tsongas, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, and state Sen. Dan Wolf as possible entrants, although Keating and Tsongas are considered unlikely to run. And a heretofore unknown candidate from the business world could still emerge.
One name not on anybody's list: Gov. Deval Patrick. The popular two-term governor has publicly ruled out a bid despite universally being seen as the Democrats' strongest hopeful. That's left the prospective field without a statewide elected office holder, a hurdle for all the candidates to jump given the tight timeline of the special election.
According to Massachusetts law, a special election to fill a U.S. Senate seat must occur between 145 and 160 days after the seat is vacated. Usually, a primary will occur about a month before the special election, giving Democrats only about four months to pick a nominee from a cast with little name identification statewide.
The short time frame is one of the reasons Brown would have an inherent advantage in the race. His statewide name recognition is already close to 100 percent, and he would have little problem picking up the campaign infrastructure from his run this year. And his entrance would almost certainly clear the GOP field, setting up an open path that would stand in stark contrast with the bloody fight likely to ensue among Democrats.
"My team is likely to have six or seven people beating each other up," said Larry DiCara, a Boston-based Democratic consultant. "We do that rather well in Massachusetts."
Just as in 2010, when Martha Coakley fell to Brown, the makeup of the special election will benefit the Republican. In November, Elizabeth Warren's victory over Scott Brown was mostly a by-product of the presidential race, which drove turnout among left-leaning minorities and young people. President Obama's overwhelming popularity in Massachusetts proved difficult for Brown to overcome--even though he outperformed Mitt Romney by nearly 10 points, Brown still fell well short of Warren.
But Brown remained popular. Exit polls showed 60 percent of the state's voters held a favorable opinion of him, 5 points higher, in fact, than Warren's favorability. And now he'll benefit from a special election's older, whiter electorate, which is less inclined to see the race as a referendum on Obama.
Still, Democrats aren't entirely pessimistic about their chances. The 2010 special election was, by and large, an amazing confluence of events for Brown. He faced a candidate running a terrible campaign, avoided scrutiny as an underdog, and ran at a time when Congress was debating the unpopular health care bill. Running against "Obamacare" was an easy playbook for the then-state senator, but he might not have as effective a foil in Washington this time around. A debate about gun control or raising taxes on the wealthy isn't as beneficial to his chances.
"In his race against Warren, the lights were a lot brighter and went on for much longer, and the outcome wasn't positive for him," said the Democrat Cence. "So the question is: Can he catch lightning in a bottle again?"