Even nearly three years after his passing, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy remains an influential force in the 2012 elections.
As incumbent Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren square off in advance of November's decision date, the rhetoric surrounding the election continues to revolve not around "the Massachusetts Senate seat," but around "Ted Kennedy's old seat." A back-and-forth between Brown's campaign and Kennedy's widow Vicki surrounding a debate between Senate candidates Brown and Warren has only highlighted again (as if it could ever be forgotten) the late senator's continued importance in Massachusetts politics.
Kennedy's death in August 2009 left his seat open to a new candidate for the first time in 47 years. Against all odds, Brown's upset of Democrat and favorite Martha Coakley to win the 2010 special election and claim the slot, throwing a wrench both in the GOP-Democrat balance in the Senate and also in Massachusetts history. (The last Republican to represent Massachusetts in the Senate was Edward Brooke, elected in 1972.)
Of course, it's not Kennedy's seat even though he held it for decades. And that's a point Brown made in 2010, when he shot back at debate moderator David Gergen, "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy seat and it's not the Democrat's seat -- it's the people's seat."
It's the people's seat, but Brown is sitting in it now and he has proven himself masterful at building portions of his campaign around the popular Democratic senator's legacy instead of trying to undercut one of the most popular politicians in recent Bay State memory. Notably, Brown used an excerpt of a letter Kennedy wrote on his deathbed to claim that he and Kennedy held similar views when it came to religious exemptions, an argument which Brown used to advance a healthcare amendment that would allow religious organizations to forgo providing their employees contraceptiive benefits. This strategy is nothing new - during the 2010 race to replace Teddy Kennedy, Brown ran an ad comparing his own tax policy to JFK's in an ad that morphed video of JFK into video of Brown.
Diehard Democrats and Kennedy supporters have long bristled at Brown's use of Kennedy's legacy. But Brown remains popular in the state and the race, by all accounts, is deadlocked.
The late senator's widow, Vicki Kennedy, recently reached out to both candidates regarding her co-hosting a debate prior to the election. Brown's campaign accepted, but only conditionally - the Republican insisted that if he join in, that Kennedy refrain from endorsing anyone in the election. Kennedy refused, and Brown's camp formally declined her debate invitation soon after. Brown's reluctance to join in a Kennedy-sponsored debate was seen as strange by many, particularly since Brown participated in a Kennedy Center debate against Coakley in 2010.
While she has yet to officially throw her support behind either Brown or Warren, it is widely believed that were Kennedy to endorse someone, that someone would be Warren. For Brown, Kennedy's specter has been something of a haunting presence.
If the show were to go on, it could be an odd debate situation; Vicki Kennedy was the first choice of many Democrats to fill her husband's seat in the 2010 special election. It would be hard to see her endorsing anyone but a Democrat.
The reality remains that many in Massachusetts will only see blue and red in election years.