President Barack Obama's move on Friday to nominate Democratic U.S. Senator John Kerry as his secretary of state sets the stage for Massachusetts' second special Senate election in three years.
The race could pit a veteran Democratic Massachusetts congressmen or the state's top federal prosecutor against Senator Scott Brown, a Republican who came to office in a 2010 special election but who last month lost a re-election bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
The campaign promises to be a more spirited one than the state's last special election, called to fill the vacancy created by the August 2009 death of Senator Edward Kennedy. With heavy support from the national Republican Party, Brown won the seat long held by the Democratic leader, handily beating state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was criticized as running a lackluster campaign.
Brown has hinted he could consider another run, saying in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, "We may obviously meet again."
Possible Democratic contenders include congressmen Edward Markey and Michael Capuano, as well as U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, observers and local media said.
A Democratic contender for the seat Kerry has held since 1985 could get a big boost from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who has authority to appoint an interim senator to serve from the time Kerry steps down to the special election about five months later.
That authority stems from a 2009 law passed in the wake of Kennedy's death. At that time Patrick appointed Paul Kirk, a longtime Kennedy friend who said he would not run for the seat. But the governor does not have to nominate someone who does not intend to run for the seat.
"The real question is, does the governor appoint somebody who would be a coat-holder or someone who is going to run in the special election," said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "That's a crucial decision that the governor would make because if he appoints someone who is going to run, then that person gets a tremendous advantage a few months later in the election."
Massachusetts law requires the special election to come on a Tuesday 145 to 160 days after Kerry submits his letter of resignation, with party primaries held four weeks before that.
The outcome of the race would not tip the balance of power in the Senate where Democrats currently enjoy a 55-45 majority.
But the departure of Kerry, 69, from a seat he had held for about 28 years will leave Massachusetts with two of the most junior members in the Senate.
Markey, 66, has held his seat in the House of Representatives since 1976 and is the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, while Capuano, 60, has served in the House since 1999.
Ortiz, 56, was named U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts in November 2009 and has overseen cases including the ongoing prosecution of accused Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.
Ortiz "has no plans to run for U.S. Senate," a spokeswoman said on Friday.
Representatives of the other possible candidates did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.
The winner of the special election would serve until the end of Kerry's current term, which extends into January 2015.