Taking back Sen. Kennedy's old seat a top priority for Democrats in 2012

BOSTON — Democrats are seeking to make amends in Massachusetts after Scott Brown’s (R) stunning election to the Senate last January.

Party members and labor groups in the state said that beating Brown will likely be their top priority in 2012, presenting them an opportunity to reclaim the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D) longtime seat.

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Brown also represents one of the few pickup opportunities for Democrats, who’ll be defending 23 Senate seats in the coming election.

“If you had to project right now, it’s top of the ticket in Massachusetts,” said state Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh of Brown.

And while Brown’s staff publicly argues that it’s far too early to be talking about the 2012 election, it’s begun quietly assembling an organization to withstand the coming firestorm.

Brown has established a relatively centrist position after almost a year in the Senate. He defied the Tea Party, the grassroots group that helped him win election, by backing the tax-cut extension compromise brokered by President Obama and congressional Republicans.

He also broke with his party on Wall Street reform; a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”; and several other key votes.

He had almost $7 million in cash on hand at the end of September, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and he’s already been the target of an attack ad. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched an online ad to criticize Brown for voting against the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for just middle-income families.

Meanwhile, Brown’s political opponents in Massachusetts have spent much of the past year learning from the mistakes of January’s special election, when the highly touted Democrat in the race, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, lost. The defeat was stinging to liberals and supporters of healthcare reform and galvanizing for members of the Tea Party movement.

Tim Sullivan, the communications director of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said there was plenty of blame to go around for Democrats losing a seat they held for more than 50 years.

“Everybody involved in that race deserves a share of the pie,” he said.

Unionized voters broke for Brown to an unusual degree in that race. Brown had been endorsed as a state senator by the AFL-CIO, and managed to perform relatively well with those voters, despite the AFL-CIO’s and other unions’ endorsements of Coakley.

The labor community won’t get caught flat-footed this time around, Sullivan asserted.

“It’s just a matter of having enough time and the methods to put the facts in front of them [union voters],” Sullivan explained.

Brown’s critics point to his occasional votes against extending unemployment insurance — like other Republicans, Brown demanded those bills be paid for with spending cuts —and his decision to withhold support for Wall Street reform until a $19 billion bank fee was withdrawn — while accepting donations from Wall Street high-rollers.

But Brown’s advisers contend that Democrats’ attacks have largely fallen flat. The image of the barn coat-wearing, red truck-driving everyman-turned-senator has stayed with Brown, they say.

The senator will look to cement that image when he releases his memoirs in February. That book, advisers to Brown said, would reveal more about his hardscrabble upbringing.

Brown’s also steadily built a more sophisticated team going into 2012. John Cook, a veteran fundraiser for Republicans in Massachusetts, has signed on as finance director for Brown’s reelection effort.

The other major variable in the race will be the fate of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) presidential campaign. Romney hasn’t officially announced his 2012 plans, but a number of veterans of his 2008 campaign were instrumental in Brown’s win last January. On one hand, their concentration on the former governor’s presidential ambitions could distract from Brown’s effort. On the other, Romney partisans argue that their boss, if he snags the Republican nomination in 2012, would give Brown an added boost against whichever Democrat snags the nomination.

Brown’s people are also excited that his wife, Gail Huff, will be able to hit the campaign trail on the senator’s behalf. A longtime broadcaster in Boston who left her job after her husband’s election, Huff is seen as a potential asset as a surrogate for Brown on the campaign trail.

Figuring out which Democrat will eventually face Brown is another variable.

“I think there will be a lot of people who will be talking with family and friends over the holiday,” Walsh said.

Contenders for the seat could include various members of the state’s congressional delegation, such as Democratic Reps. Michael Capuano, Edward Markey, Niki Tsongas, Barney Frank or Stephen Lynch.

Virtually all of those candidates would be better than Brown, said Sullivan, who noted in particular that Lynch, a former labor lawyer who angered a number of allies by voting against healthcare reform, had “mended to some degree” his relationship with labor in the state.

The specter of a member of the Kennedy family entering the race also hangs over the Democratic field. Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the senator, passed on running for the seat, and it’s not clear that any other member of the clan might seek to reclaim the so-called “Kennedy seat.”

“As of now, all the family members say no,” Walsh said. “I don’t think anybody gives any lead pipe guarantees.”