Now that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's nomination for secretary of State no longer appears to be a matter of if but when, some environmentalists are daring to whisper the three words that they have long dreamed to say: Sen. Ed Markey.
Markey, an 18-term Democratic congressman, dean of the Massachusetts delegation and outspoken environmental champion, is openly contemplating the prospect of running for the Senate if there's a special election to replace Kerry.
"I'm looking at the seat very carefully, and it's my hope that Senator Kerry becomes secretary of State," Markey said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
But he's doing more than just looking. The Boston Globe reported this week that Markey is conducting polling in the Bay State to assess his chances.
"I'm just doing my best to put in place the procedural process that allows me to make an informed decision about where I can be most effective," Markey said when asked about the poll Wednesday.
The congressman's movements will be closely watched in the environmental community.
"I don't think it's any secret that Ed Markey is one of the great heroes of environmentalists, and if he makes a move to run for the Senate I would think it's a safe bet that those [environmental] groups that are involved in electoral politics will support him," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.
"He's been a tremendous champion, and he'd make a great candidate," said Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters.
Asked whether LCV, which isn't shy about putting down big bucks in major congressional races, was encouraging Markey to make a move for the Senate seat, Gohringer noted that the seat isn't technically open at this point.
"We're going to cross that bridge when and if we get there," he said.
Markey's path to the other side of Capitol Hill could run in one of two directions.
After Kerry is nominated, he would face a confirmation hearing. If his fellow senators confirm him, Kerry's departure would set off a vacancy that would require Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint a replacement until a special election can be held.
That special general election would need to take place no fewer than 145 days and no later than 160 days after the vacancy occurs, according to state law. The winner would serve the rest of Kerry's term, which ends in 2014, and would have to run again to serve a full six-year term after that.
Markey could simply throw his hat into the ring for the special election, or he could get to the Senate sooner through an appointment by Patrick.
And an appointment would certainly be desirable for Markey supporters as it would give the congressman a leg up in the ensuing special primary and general election.
The problem is that Markey might have competition or Patrick might prefer to appoint a caretaker to the Senate job until the special election plays out. That is what Patrick did in 2009 when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) died and Kennedy confidant Paul Kirk was appointed with the agreement that he would not run in the special election to fill the rest of Kennedy's term.
"I expect to do the same thing I did last time," Patrick told the Globe last week when asked about his appointment. "I'm not ruling out other options. But, as a practical matter, it's hard for me to imagine how you could serve in the Senate for a four-month period and also run a statewide campaign in a four-month period and do both of them well."
Still, there would be political advantages to appointing a Democrat who would run in the special election. Namely, it would allow that person to build up name identification and provide plenty of exposure ahead of the special election.
And that could be crucial for Democrats with departing Sen. Scott Brown (R) expected to jump into a special election.
Brown, who won the 2010 special election to fill the remainder of Kennedy's term but lost his bid for a full term last month, has made no secret about his desire to return to the Senate. As he did in his election night concession speech, Brown noted in his farewell address on the Senate floor last week that "defeat is temporary" and that "we may meet again."
A poll conducted this week by WBUR, a National Public Radio station in the Boston area, showed that Brown would be well-positioned for another run.
Brown had the highest favorability ratings of 11 candidates tested in the survey of 500 Massachusetts registered voters conducted Monday and Tuesday. And in a hypothetical matchup against an unnamed Democrat, Brown led 47 percent to 39 percent. The survey by MassInc Polling Group had a 4.4-point margin of error.
If Patrick decides to make an appointment with an eye toward giving Democrats a leg up, Markey could have competition.
According to the MassInc poll, fellow Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano performed just about as well in a head-to-head matchup with Brown as Markey.
And Capuano, a seven-term congressman who represents a district that borders Markey's in suburban Boston, has also been open about his interest in the Senate post. Capuano lost to state Attorney General Martha Coakley in the Democratic primary leading up to the 2010 special election. (Coakley, who lost to Brown, performed better in a head-to-head matchup with the Republican than either congressman.)
"I'll look at it when it happens -- in the meantime I won't lose any sleep over it," Capuano said this week about a possible Senate bid. "I've talked to the governor about it. I talk to him pretty regularly."
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D), a five-term congressman also from suburban Boston who also has Senate ambitions, said this week that he hasn't talked to Patrick but that he wouldn't be in favor of appointing someone just to give that person a leg up in the special election.
Lynch said the appointee should not be on the special election ballot because that person should be concerned with making votes for the commonwealth and not with running a campaign.
"I think all of these efforts to orchestrate a particular result are somewhat demeaning," Lynch said. "Let's just let the people make a free choice of who they want to serve."
As for whether he would run in a special election to fill Kerry's seat, Lynch said, "I'll look pretty closely at it when it happens."
3.1 million reasons to run?
With about $3.1 million in his campaign war chest, Markey would start a special election bid well ahead of his congressional colleagues. But there are also some things money can't buy.
A Politico story yesterday noted that Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the late legendary senator, is the subject of increasing speculation in the Bay State and could clear a special election primary field. The younger Kennedy is currently a resident of Connecticut.
Markey has cruised to victory in every election since winning his seat in 1976, after prevailing in a multi-candidate Democratic primary. So he's never had to run a tough campaign using the modern tools of political warfare. He would also have to weigh the benefits of becoming a junior member of the majority party in the Senate at the age of 66 against being a senior member in the minority party in the House, where he serves as ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member on the Energy and Commerce panel.
"Those are all things I think the congressman would take a look at if the seat became open," LCV's Gohringer said.
For his part, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he would hate to lose his friend Markey in the House but that "he would make a great senator."
And even Markey's frequent Republican sparring partner, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, said he would miss Markey if he went to the Senate.
"He has a good sense of humor and sets a good standard for me to try to reach, and I've always enjoyed our relationship," Upton said before quipping that "going to the lower body is not always a good thing."