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Giant shadow

Though he won't be on the ballot, Ted Kennedy's influence will be keenly felt in the special election to replace him.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 2, 2009

On a national level, Ted Kennedy was posthumously hailed as a champion of the underprivileged, recognized respectfully even by his opponents as the Liberal Lion. But one striking aspect of the Kennedy tributes was the focus on the help he and his office provided for ordinary individuals in Massachusetts — all those things that fall under the category of "constituent services." Tales of Kennedy's responsiveness came from all corners, and it was those acts — far more than his impressive legislative accomplishments, or even the Kennedy family name — that brought tens of thousands out to pack the streets and stand in line to say farewell to their long-time senator.

That legacy of constituent service could cast a long shadow over the campaign to replace him. Ordinarily, that aspect of the job doesn't even enter into the debate — not when a US Senate seat is on the line. But in the upcoming special election to replace Kennedy, the policy differences among the Democratic candidates are likely to be minor. That may leave the December 8 primary voters asking themselves: who will be most like Ted, taking care of us back home?

Several political observers suggest that this could be a vulnerability for Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general and an almost certain competitor for Kennedy's seat.

Coakley, they say, does have a lot going for her as a Senate candidate. She has statewide name recognition and high favorability ratings. She is seen as competent and smart. She will have plenty of institutional support from within the party. And, unless Vicki Kennedy seeks to succeed her husband, Coakley will probably be the only woman running in an effort to become the first female senator ever from Massachusetts.

Where Coakley may be weak, however, is in constituent services — which has never been part of her job description, either as AG or in her previous position, Middlesex County district attorney.

Her likely opponents — including Congressmen Michael Capuano, Steve Lynch, and Ed Markey, and former congressmen Joe Kennedy and Marty Meehan — will be able to cite real examples of their actually helping people in their districts.

In fact, two veteran Democratic party insiders — not wanting to be named pointing out potential candidate flaws — hypothesize that Coakley has fashioned a somewhat icy, aloof public image. That's standard political strategy for a woman running for a prosecutor's job, but might be the wrong image to attract an electorate voting in the aftermath of Kennedy's death.

And the GOP?
That impressive roster of Democratic candidates will be engaged in a fierce, three-month battle for the special-election primary. Given the heavy Democratic firepower, the relatively anemic candidates likely to be vying for the Republican nomination may be an afterthought.

The humiliation has already started. When Deval Patrick announced, earlier this week, that the Kennedy-seat special election will be held on January 19, several local and national pundits quickly commented that the real election will be December 8. Republicans have so little chance in Massachusetts, they said, that the Democratic primary will be the de facto final.

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Related: Chaos Theory, The X factor, After Ted, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts, Peter Torkildsen,  More more >
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