BOSTON — For the first time in nearly half a century, Massachusetts voters will be handed ballots for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Edward Kennedy without his name on them.
The long list of potential candidates to replace him in the seat once held by President John F. Kennedy includes congressmen, former prosecutors and, perhaps, one of Edward Kennedy's nephews.
Kennedy's death leaves little mourning time for the dozen or more Senate hopefuls who face a five-month dash to election day.
State law requires a special election no sooner than 145 days and no later than 160 days after a vacancy occurs. The law bans an interim appointee. In this case, the election must be held either the last two weeks of January or the first week of February.
Primaries must be held six weeks before the special election, giving Democratic and Republican candidates little more than three months to campaign for their party's nomination.
"That is a very short period of time to be able to mount an attempt to garner one of these precious seats," said Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. The tight window will favor candidates with name recognition and hefty campaign war chests, he added.
An open senate seat in Massachusetts is a rare political prize. Kennedy held his seat for 47 years. Fellow Democrat Sen. John Kerry was elected in 1984.
"No one will replace Ted Kennedy in their first year, but Democrats at least want someone who reflects his basic policy positions," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Despite speculation that Kennedy's wife, Vicki, could assume his Senate seat, family aides have said she is not interested in replacing her husband.
One of Kennedy's nephews, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has also been suggested as a candidate. He heads Citizens Energy, a nonprofit that distributes discounted heating oil to the poor, and has been criticized in recent years for accepting oil from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Other potential Democratic contenders include state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who would be the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts. She has a high profile and statewide recognition, but would need to raise money quickly.
Several congressmen have also been mentioned, including Reps. Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano, Edward Markey, James McGovern and William Delahunt.
While each has a federal campaign account, they are better known in their districts and differ in ideology. Lynch from the South Boston neighborhood of Boston, is more socially conservative compared to Capuano, a liberal from the blue collar city of Somerville.
One former Democratic member of Congress, Martin Meehan, has also been named as a potential candidate. Now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Meehan still has nearly $5 million in his federal account.
Republicans face an even tougher climb in a state that leans heavily democratic.
Potential candidates include Cape Cod businessman Jeff Beatty, former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, state Sen. Scott Brown, and Chris Egan, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Cooperation and Development.
In a recent letter to lawmakers, Kennedy said the special election law should be changed to allow the governor to appoint someone to serve in the Senate during the course of the election — provided that person pledges not to run for the seat.
"It is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election," Kennedy wrote.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Patrick called the proposal "a reasonable idea" and said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.
"Right now, Massachusetts needs two voices in the U.S. Senate," Patrick said.
Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, both Democrats, haven't said whether they back the change. DeLeo said there would likely be a public hearing on the issue within the next month.
Without the change, Senate Democrats could fall one vote short on any health care overhaul legislation this fall. Health care had been Kennedy's core issue for decades.
Before Kennedy's death, Democrats held a potentially filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, but some moderate Democrats have been wavering. Another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has been seriously ill and often absent.
The succession law was changed in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., became his party's presidential nominee and Republican Mitt Romney was the state's governor. Democratic lawmakers changed the law to block Romney from installing a Republican to serve until the next general election.