In Massachusetts, Race Is On For Kerry's Senate Seat

With John Kerry stepping down from the seat he held for 28 years to become secretary of state, rumors are swirling about who his short-term replacement will be — and who will run in the special election in six months. Gov. Deval Patrick is appointing the replacement Wednesday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has just named his former chief of staff to be the state's new U.S. senator. William "Mo" Cowan will fill the seat of John Kerry, who's been confirmed as secretary of state. Cowan will serve until a special election in June.

He'll be the second African-American senator from Massachusetts, but in one respect his appointment is a historical first: there will now be two African-Americans serving in the Senate. The other, a Republican.

As he accepted his appointment, Cowan gave a shout-out to his mother.

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SENATOR WILLIAM 'MO' COWAN: She's a child of the segregated South, a single mother to my sisters and me after my father died when I was a teenager, a woman who did not have the opportunity to attend college. But my mother told me days like today were possible.

MONTAGNE: Mo Cowan said he won't compete for the seat in the June election. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on who might.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: For decades, with Senators John Kerry and the late Ted Kennedy secure in their seats, competitive Senate races were rare in Massachusetts. But now voters are suddenly overdosing on them.

JEFF BERRY: This is Massachusetts, where the sun never sets on Senate races.

SMITH: Tufts University political science Professor Jeff Berry says no one would feel that more than Scott Brown, who after winning the special election in 2010, ran and lost the regular election in 2012 and could now end up doing a whole second set, conceivably grinding out four state-wide elections in just over four years.

BERRY: Scott Brown faces a very difficult decision. I think he's tortured right now.

SMITH: Berry says the political stakes are as high as the personal for Brown. The former senator might be better off taking a short break and running for governor in 2014. Or there's always the chance he'll go for a more lucrative job in the private sector, which all leaves some Republicans wringing their hands, waiting for the Brown shoe to drop.

TODD DOMKE: It's like "Waiting for Godot" with Scott Brown.

SMITH: That's Republican strategist Todd Domke.

DOMKE: If he really wanted to run, I assume he would have sent out some signals by now. But instead, he's been in hiding, and a lot of Republicans are distraught.

SMITH: On the other hand, Brown may be fully intending to run and just biding his time and staying out of the line of fire while he can. He has little reason to rush in. He'd likely have a clear path to the nomination and full backing of national Republican leaders who are hoping to win a Senate majority in 2014.

While others - like former Governor Bill Weld - have been mentioned as possible contenders, Domke says Brown is by far the GOP's best hope.

DOMKE: On the Republican side, if Brown doesn't run, we're in trouble. The Republican Party doesn't have a deep bench. It's more like a folding chair.

SMITH: Democrats, on the other hand, may have the opposite dilemma, with multiple candidates forcing what could be a bruising and costly primary battle. Congressman Stephen Lynch - a social conservative who voted against Obamacare - is expected to announce tomorrow whether he'll challenge Congressman Ed Markey, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation who's backed by party big wigs.

Markey, who announced his run a month ago, is already stumping on what he says will be his key issues of jobs, protecting Social Security and the environment, as well as promoting gun control as he did at the State House a few days ago

REPRESENTATIVE ED MARKEY: The tragedy in Newtown has changed everything in Washington. I think we're going to pass legislation this year.

SMITH: While Markey waits to find out who he'll be running against, he has already called for anyone jumping in to agree to ban political TV ads by outside groups. A similar so-called people's pledge signed by Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren, for the most part, did keep third-party ads off the air. But it didn't stop the race from becoming one of the most expensive in the nation.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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