BOSTON – If John Kerry (search) is elected president, Massachusetts would end up with its first Senate (search) vacancy in 20 years, triggering a springtime special election that could determine the balance of power in Congress' upper chamber.
Republicans hold a 51-seat majority in the Senate, but a handful of close contests this fall give Democrats at least a slim hope of gaining the two seats necessary to put them in control no matter what the outcome of the presidential election.
"Depending on how the close races turn out, you get into scenarios where the Kerry seat makes a big difference," said Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer.
If Democrats were to win the White House and gain just one seat, splitting the chamber 50-50, Kerry's resignation would give Republicans a 50-49 majority — at least until the special election to replace him. With a Democratic vice president serving as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, a Democratic victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts would give the party control.
The Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law this summer that stripped the governor — these days, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney (search) — of the right to fill Senate vacancies. Under the law, a special election would take place between 145 and 160 days after Kerry submits his letter of resignation.
The prospect of a rare Senate opening in Massachusetts has Democrats salivating, with several members of the all-Democrat congressional delegation and a high-profile county prosecutor already declaring themselves candidates in the hypothetical race.
Even Republicans, who are duty-bound not to contemplate a Kerry victory over President Bush, are said to be quietly trying to line up candidates who might have the name recognition and financial backing necessary to break the Democratic monopoly on the state's congressional delegation and win their first Senate seat in more than a quarter-century.
Romney, who ran for the Senate in 1994, has repeatedly said he will not run. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey is considered a likely candidate.
Until the law was changed, Republicans would have been assured of the seat under a long-standing state law that would have allowed Romney to appoint Kerry's successor. An appointed senator would have served until the next general election, in 2006.
After Kerry locked up the nomination, however, the Democratic-controlled Legislature began pushing through a bill that allows voters to fill vacancies through a special election.
Democrats called the bill a sensible reform that would allow a popularly elected candidate to represent state residents in Washington, rather than one of the governor's hand-picked political friends.
Republicans, who are vastly outnumbered in the Legislature, called it a transparent ploy to ensure that the state's congressmen — with their ample campaign accounts and strong name recognition — would be the only candidates able to pull together a successful campaign within the abridged time frame.
They also questioned the wisdom of allowing Massachusetts to be represented by only one senator while the special election was taking place, especially during a time when critical budget and public safety decisions are being made.
"It was disappointing to see the Democrats in Massachusetts respond in such a partisan fashion to the mere prospect of a Kerry presidency by passing legislation that shortchanges the voters," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communication director.
State Democratic Chairman Phil Johnston said Massachusetts would be well represented in the interim.
"I think we'll survive with Ted Kennedy," said Johnston, referring to the state's senior senator. "And Senator Kerry will be in the White House, and I'm sure he'll be taking good care of Massachusetts. It's hard to argue that voters should not make this decision."
One of the supporters of the special election legislation, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, knows from personal experience how the previous system could be used for political purposes. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy vacated his Senate seat to become president, his younger brother was only 28 — two years shy of the age requirement for serving in the Senate.
To ensure that the younger Kennedy would have no trouble winning the seat in the 1962 special election, the Democratic governor appointed Benjamin Smith, one of President Kennedy's longtime friends, to hold the seat until the election. Kennedy won that election and has held the seat ever since.