John Kerry’s Elizabeth Warren Dilemma

How a Warren victory could thwart John Kerry's dream of becoming secretary of state.

john kerry's elizabeth warren dilemma

Illustration by John Ueland

If Washington, DC, is a city of poorly guarded secrets, perhaps the least well guarded is Senator John Kerry’s desire to be secretary of state. Hillary Clinton has made it clear that she will not return for a second term in that role, and if President Obama is reelected, Kerry would certainly be a favorite for the post. From his emergency diplomatic relations with Afghanistan to his work chairing the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry has been one of Obama’s go-to guys for international affairs. Considering that our senior senator was among the first high-profile politicians to support Obama’s presidential bid, you could even say that the president owes him one.

So what, short of a Mitt Romney victory this November, could thwart Kerry’s ambitions? An Elizabeth Warren victory.

With control of the Senate so tightly contested between the two parties, Warren’s race with Senator Scott Brown could well decide whether the D’s or the R’s hold the majority. So suppose Warren beats Brown in a tight vote. Also suppose that Obama wins reelection, and Kerry is given the keys to the State Department.

That would mean Massachusetts would need a new senator, of course, so just like when Ted Kennedy passed away, Governor Deval Patrick would appoint a temporary one immediately, then hold a special election in 145 to 160 days. It’s not hard to imagine Brown running for Kerry’s seat. It is hard to imagine who’d run against him on the Democratic ticket, especially since the Dems will soon need a gubernatorial candidate as well.

“Where are the Democrats going to find a credible candidate for governor and a credible candidate for Senate if Kerry is successful?” wonders Philip Johnston, a former Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman. With Patrick’s term up in two years, Johnston points out, candidates like the rejuvenated Attorney General Martha Coakley or state Treasurer Steve Grossman might choose to hold off on a Senate bid and instead run for governor (besides, we’ve already seen how Coakley versus Brown plays out).

You could trot out all the names we’ve already heard: City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, our various representatives in the House, but none of them inspires much confidence against a candidate as tough as Brown. “I think there is a bench issue right now for the Democrats,” Johnston says.

It could well be that if Obama wins again and taps Kerry for his cabinet, he’d be handing a crucial Senate seat back to the GOP. That doesn’t seem like something the president would want to do. So while we’d like to think we know who Kerry will be voting for in this November’s Senate race, one of his colleagues might just want to check his ballot.