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Secretary Warren? A Pressley-Healey primary? A Biden White House sets off stars in Mass. Democrats' eyes

From left to right, top to bottom: Ayanna Pressley, Elizabeth Warren, Martin Walsh, and Maura Healey.
From left to right, top to bottom: Ayanna Pressley, Elizabeth Warren, Martin Walsh, and Maura Healey.

It’s April 2021, and Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren is making the case for President Biden’s new tax package. Ambassador Martin J. Walsh is on a trans-Atlantic flight to his new post in Ireland. And back in Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley and Maura Healey are in the throes of a heated primary to become the state’s junior senator.

Such is the alternative reality, or one of them, being gamed out by Massachusetts Democrats, who are awash in speculation about Biden’s victory reshuffling the state’s own elective landscape as he fills out the new Democratic administration.

In interviews with 16 party operatives and political insiders, the prospects abound, though most start and end with Warren, whose aides declined to comment on her reported interest in the Treasury post.

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Should Biden tap his former presidential rival for a Cabinet spot (as progressive Democrats want) and Warren clears the Senate’s confirmation process (uncertain, if not unlikely, should the GOP retain control), Democratic strategists say it’s hard to quantify the political dominoes that would tumble — touching everyone from Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts congressional delegation to the party’s 2022 statewide ticket.

Walsh, a Biden ally who has yet to say if he’s running for reelection next year, is also on the tip of Democrats' tongues, though for what role is uncertain. Walsh has been a suggested candidate for Labor secretary or an ambassadorship.

Representative Stephen F. Lynch, who endorsed Biden 19 months ahead of the election, has a deep background in labor issues as a former union ironworker, as well as in foreign affairs and national security — he’s visited Iraq and Afghanistan more than 20 times — making him another popular name on Democrats' watch list.

And Baker, too, has been publicly floated as a Republican being eyed by the president-elect’s transition team, though those close to the governor said he has shown little interest in ever working in Washington.

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There are also deep wells of skepticism here about Biden plundering much of Massachusetts’ elected ranks. Instead, several insiders suggested, it’s more likely prominent Democrats such as Steve Kerrigan, who was president of the 2013 Barack Obama inaugural committee; Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary in the Obama administration; or former governor Deval Patrick, who worked in the Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton, could be tapped for high-ranking posts without setting off the scramble of special elections.

“I guarantee somewhere in Massachusetts there’s a school committee member thinking of running for selectman. Because a selectman is going to run for state representative. Because the representative is thinking of running for state senator. Because the senator [is eyeing something else]," mused John Walsh, a veteran Democratic operative who managed Senator Edward J. Markey’s successful reelection campaign.

“Which of those plans will be put on the shelf in six months or which ones will be quickly activated is the hot stove league,” he said. “The truth is, in the end it’s a very small percentage.”

It’s the selection of Warren that could increase that number. The Cambridge senator was the subject of similar vice presidential speculation in 2016 and earlier this year, and the prospect of her leaving her seat now faces any number of complications, from the outcome of two Senate runoffs in Georgia that could decide control of the Senate to Biden’s own considerations of how progressive his Cabinet should look.

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Under current state law, Baker holds the power in selecting who fills a Senate vacancy ahead of a special election. The governor is said not to have had deep discussions about how he’d approach a pick, but it’s widely expected he would name a Republican, likely cast from the same moderate mold as Baker.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has twice changed the law in the face of political headwinds, sapping then-governor Mitt Romney of the appointment power in 2004 and then restoring it for Patrick in 2009 so he could temporarily fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat.

Patrick did the same in 2013 after John Kerry took over as Obama’s secretary of state, setting off a series of special elections that first thrust Markey into the Senate, Katherine Clark into the House, and Jason M. Lewis into the state Senate.

Whether the Legislature takes a third bite at the statute and changes it to tie Baker’s hands remains to be seen.

Representative Mindy Domb, an Amherst Democrat, filed an amendment amid the Massachusetts House’s ongoing budget debate that would force Baker to tap a Democrat for the interim spot. But it’s unclear if legislative leaders, who have a relatively cordial relationship with Baker, have had any high-level discussions about changing the law, which House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in 2016 he was “not in favor” of doing.

(Aides to DeLeo did not respond to a requests for comment this week, and Senate President Karen E. Spilka said it was not “appropriate to comment on a hypothetical.”)

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It could prove a major stumbling block. Democrats have pinned their hopes of splitting the Senate 50-50 — and giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote — on prevailing in both Senate races in Georgia in January. To then lose that edge with a Baker-appointed Republican, if even for a few months, could hamstring Biden’s agenda in the first 100 days.

“If it comes down to letting Governor Baker decide who controls the Senate, I don’t think Biden would make that selection [of Warren]. And I don’t think the senator would do it,” said Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who advised Warren in her first Senate victory in 2012. “I don’t see any scenario where Governor Baker, if he has the opportunity, doesn’t appoint a Republican to that seat.”

But who would actually run to fill Warren’s seat, should she leave it, is an entirely different parlor game. Pressley, the state’s first Black congresswoman, led a hypothetical field in an October UMass Amherst/WCVB poll, and several political insiders said a Pressley campaign could deter others from running.

But Healey, the twice-elected state attorney general viewed as a potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate, would likely give an open Senate seat consideration, those close to her said. Democratic strategists were torn on whether Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III — who lost a bid to unseat Markey in September and whose campaign improperly spent $1.5 million of donations during that effort — would also seek the seat should he not land his own post in a Biden administration. Others consider Patrick another potential contender.

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“The list would be endless,” said Melvin C. Poindexter, a Democratic National Committee member, who said other potential candidates, such as Lynch and Representative Seth Moulton, could also vacate their seats should Biden’s team offer a desirable landing spot. “And that domino effect expands further."

Lynch did not respond to a request for comment, and some party operatives questioned whether the South Boston Democrat would want to live in Washington full time to work in a Biden administration. But an open seat in the Eighth District would likely spark its own hectic primary.

A Walsh departure would similarly set off far-reaching ripples, including an influx of mayoral hopefuls for an open seat beyond city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, who have already announced 2021 campaigns.

Walsh, whom Biden swore in at the mayor’s second inauguration, has tried to stanch public talk of him leaving, saying Biden “can’t take everyone from Massachusetts to Washington with him.” Given Walsh’s deep labor background, several suggested there’s a role in Biden’s camp, but other political insiders questioned if the president-elect could choose to elevate Walsh’s standing within the party in other, unofficial ways, given the political and financial levers at his disposal from the White House.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is tapped to join the administration, but I don’t see them raiding the Democratic political bench of people who are currently elected,” said Jay Cincotti, a Massachusetts Democratic operative.

“Yes, I think we have the talent to justify it. I just don’t think the politics of it happening are necessarily there.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.