The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has opened up an unusual and new experience for most voters in Massachusetts -- the possibility of not being represented by a Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.
Barring two years when a placeholder senator was appointed by the governor, a Kennedy has held a Massachusetts Senate seat since 1953, when John Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
"It's not only a sea change, the fact is Massachusetts has not only lost a United States senator, they lost Ted Kennedy," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "For the first time in 57 years Massachusetts is about to find out what a lot of other states have experienced throughout their existence. Ted Kennedy and Jack Kennedy obviously were two of the most powerful and influential senators ever in the country and in our history and Massachusetts has enjoyed every benefit of it."
While Kennedy's widow Vicki and nephew Joe Kennedy have both been mentioned as possible contenders, the odds are they won't run, which means either in January -- unless Massachusetts lawmakers reverse their 2004 decision to hold a special election to determine a vacant Senate seat -- or in November 2010, voters will face the prospect a Kennedy-less Senate.
If a Kennedy runs at this point, Marsh said, it will likely be Joe Kennedy, who has previously held a U.S. congressional seat.
"Certainly given how much people loved Ted Kennedy and the fact that Joe Kennedy was a popular congressman here in Massachusetts, it would make it one of the most competitive races in Massachusetts, no doubt," she said.
"Coakley would be the favorite if no Kennedy is in the race," predicted Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry.
"People across the state know her, they like her and she's the only attorney general that people have liked and she's the only woman in statewide office in Massachusetts," Marsh added.
In February, Coakley acknowledged that she had held a poll of voters to see if she were a viable candidate. She told The Associated Press that she was interested in learning about statewide issues, and if she were considering a possible federal campaign, "we would have had to use federal money for that."
Coakley added she had not yet established a federal campaign committee to finance such things as federal poll questions.
Lynch is also considered a serious-minded contender, a "moderate" in terms of Massachusetts politics, who is pro-life, has labor backing and other support from influential organizations.
Lynch also has $1.3 million in cash on hand, as of June 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Steve Lynch people like a lot because he knocked off an incumbent state rep. in South Boston, he knocked off the very powerful and influential Senate president's son to win a state Senate seat and he won a congressional seat that no one thought he could win," Marsh said.
Other Democratic lawmakers are further down the list. Rep. Barney Frank, head of the House Financial Services Committee, told National Public Radio on Wednesday that he won't seek the seat. Eighteen-term Rep. Ed Markey, who has $2.8 million cash on hand as of June 30, and is the head of a select committee created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to address global warming, said Wednesday he hadn't thought about whether to go for it.
Gov. Deval Patrick is considered a long-shot for the now-vacant seat, but he's lacking critical support in the state, even losing -- within the margin -- his 2010 gubernatorial re-election race to leading Republican challenger Christy Mihos, according to a Rasmussen poll out Monday. His approval rating in the poll of 500 Massachusetts voters was at 39 percent.
"I don't think he's a credible candidate," Berry said, adding that even if he were popular, he hasn't "accomplished a great deal" in his two and half years as governor.
As for the Republican list of potential candidates, it is very short, Berry said. A Republican hasn't held a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts since 1979, when Edward Brooke was defeated by Paul Tsongas. Berry noted that only 13 percent of registered voters in the state are Republican.
"I don't think there is a Republican who can beat a Democrat," he said.
Potential candidates from the GOP include former Massachusetts Govs. Mitt Romney and William Weld; Massachusetts native and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card; state Sen. Scott Brown; Cape Cod businessman Jeff Beatty; former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey; former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan; and Chris Egan, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Cooperation and Development.
Former Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling also has been named as a potential contender.
Republicans also may be less likely to get a chance to run in a January election. Though Massachusetts law currently requires a special election within 145-160 days after a Senate seat becomes vacant, state lawmakers are considering reversing the 2004 law that Ted Kennedy himself proposed to require a vote rather than a gubernatorial appointment.
At the time, Democrats were worried that then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would be able to fill any vacancy created if Democratic Sen. John Kerry were elected president.
But last week, the ailing senator reversed himself, saying it's urgent that the seat not be left open while a race is scheduled.
"It is vital for this commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election," Kennedy wrote in a letter to Patrick.
Lawmakers are expected to hold a hearing next month on the proposal, moving up the consideration date from October, and allowing legislation to be passed and signed into law before the deadline for a special election.
Patrick told a local radio station Wednesday that he believes the proposal was "entirely reasonable" and said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.
Despite expressed admiration for Kennedy's legacy, the state's Republican Party leader said Wednesday that the GOP opposes any change to the current law.
"We must honor Senator Kennedy's service by allowing those who sent him to the Senate to decide the next generation of leaders for Massachusetts," said Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.