Massachusetts Democrats are facing a tough political dilemma created by their own machinations: how to hold onto US Senator John F. Kerry’s seat in the face of a special election law they created eight years ago that is now working against them.
With all indications suggesting that Kerry will vacate the seat to become secretary of state, party insiders see huge hurdles that could include a divisive and expensive primary fight, followed by what will probably be a general election battle against Scott Brown, a popular Republican, who is seen by analysts as a strong contender in a low-turnout special election.
One of the easiest ways to ensure that the seat remains in Democratic hands would be to do away with a special election, instead allowing Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a fellow Democrat to serve out the remainder of Kerry’s term through 2014. That was the longstanding law for filling Senate vacancies in Massachusetts before the Legislature changed the statute in 2004, creating a special election procedure in effort to deny Mitt Romney, then governor, a Senate appointment if Kerry had won the presidential race.
Five years later, in 2009, the Legislature again amended the law at the behest of Edward M. Kennedy, who was dying of brain cancer, allowing the governor to appoint an interim senator to fill the seat only for a brief period until the special election. Kennedy argued that the state needed to be represented in the debate at the time over the national health care law.
Because Democratic leaders have now changed the law twice in the last eight years, it would be politically difficult to finagle the process yet again.
“The Democrats are getting what they deserved,’’ said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tuft University. “They manipulated the rules last time to ostensibly help them keep the Senate seat. . . . It was pure politics.’’
Patrick, who will be a key player in the process, said Friday that he is leaning toward naming an interim appointee who would promise not to run for the seat while a special election is held.
He did that in 2009, when Kennedy died and he named Paul G. Kirk Jr. to Kennedy’s seat for a brief period. Kirk, Kennedy’s onetime chief of staff and political confidant, agreed not to run in the special election to serve out the remainder of Kennedy’s term.
That race was eventually won by Brown in an election that rocked the political world.
“I expect to do the same thing I did last time,” Patrick told reporters. “I’m not ruling out other options. But, as a practical matter, it’s hard for me to imagine how you could serve in the Senate for a four-month period and also run a statewide campaign in a four-month period and do both of them well.”
According to a senior Democratic official, Patrick spoke to Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, shortly after last month’s election about appointing her to the Senate. Kennedy told the governor she was not interested in running for a full term, the official said. But the question of an interim appointment was left hanging. Patrick would not comment about the conversation Friday.
The governor also declined to discuss the names of any potential appointees or candidates.
For some Democrats, the party, by allowing an open race, could invite a free-for-all primary that would drain its resources and give Brown a leg up to defeat a battered Democratic nominee.
“In an abbreviated election with a significant lower turnout, it is [in] the Democratic Party’s interest to rally around one candidate,’’ said Joseph Ricca, a veteran Democratic operative who has worked on both state and national campaigns.
But it is unclear if the party leadership can impose the discipline that could clear the field for one candidate.
US Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said it is not politically feasible to control the primary election field, nor would it make any difference.
“I don’t think any of us can really handpick somebody,” said McGovern, who said he has no interest in seeking the seat. “Whether or not the governor appoints somebody for a short period of time or not, I’m not sure whether at the end of the day this race is going to be won or lost.”
All indications point to a crowded field. “Judging by the number of people who phoned me, even before the latest rumors, I suspect there are a lot of people who may jump in, in the event of a special election,” Patrick said. “It will be a pretty robust race.”
The Republicans will probably stick with Brown, who remains a formidable figure, despite his defeat last month by Elizabeth Warren. Still, former governor William F. Weld, who would probably defer to Brown, has not ruled out another run for Kerry’s Senate seat if Brown were to decide not to run.
He said Kerry’s appointment might “stir up the pot, but by a wide margin, I’d like to see others have the fun of being the candidate.”
When a reporter reminded Weld that his statement did not constitute a complete denial, Weld took a lengthy pause. “It is what it is,” he said, before reaffirming his support for Brown’s candidacy.
Weld recently moved back to Massachusetts after more than a decade living in New York, where he briefly launched a campaign for governor.
Among Democrats, several members of the state’s House delegation are expected to consider a run and would probably emerge as early frontrunners. Stephen Lynch of South Boston; Edward J. Markey, the dean of the delegation; and Michael Capuano of Somerville all indicated Friday that they will take a hard look at running.
Others mentioned include US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, and Attorney General Martha Coakley. State Senator Benjamin Downing, a 31-year-old Pittsfield Democrat, also repeated Friday that he would be interested.