Ghost of Ted Kennedy Still Looms Over Senate Race

PHOTO: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., speaks during a news conference in this undated file photo.Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., speaks during a news conference in this undated file photo.

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.

"Clearly, the Kennedy legacy is everywhere, but it is most powerful in Massachusetts," said Larry Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics and Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at UVA. "The January 2010 election was a special election with a lower turnout and a sub-par Democratic nominee. Thus, Scott Brown won at a time of rising unhappiness about the economy and President Obama's policies."

But Brown has fashioned himself into a political moderate on Capitol Hill. He is one of the few Republicans who will still at times vote with Democrats on contentious pieces of legislation. He helped break a filibuster, for instance, that enabled Democrats to pass their Wall Street reform bill.

Frank Phillips, longtime state politics reporter for The Boston Globe and currently State House bureau chief for the paper, points out that Brown could use the elitism associated with the Kennedys to his advantage. "He effectively used two years ago … the phrase, 'This is not a Kennedy seat,' and that I think resonated with a very strong strain of conservatives - even conservative Democrats - who sort of had a backlash against the Kennedys," he said. "This is what Brown is playing upon - the anti-elitism strain that runs through both parties, and through conservative independents." Such a strategy could be an effective counter to Harvard law professor Warren, Phillips explained.

In spite of this potential benefit, Brown's campaign cannot afford to ignore the potential continued impact of Kennedy's legacy. The combination of the family's presence as a nostalgic touchstone in Massachusetts, which could very well be skillfully leveraged by Warren's campaign, particularly if they were to secure Vicki Kennedy's support, and an Obama win in Massachusetts could, Sabato says, spell doom for Brown's reelection campaign.

"Obama will win Massachusetts by an enormous majority and there will be coattail for Elizabeth Warren," he said. "This is an exceedingly close race, and Brown has to be worried that the Kennedys might be able to do in 2012 what they could not in 2010 - get a Democrat elected to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. He is right to be concerned. Every new burden on his shoulders weighs him down more in a year when he cannot afford more weight."