EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. | Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable that both seats held by Kennedy family members could be won by Republicans.
But Scott Brown’s January election to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s former Massachusetts seat paved the way, and now the GOP is hoping Rhode Island state Rep. John J. Loughlin II will give an encore performance in the race for the U.S. House seat held by Patrick J. Kennedy, the late senator’s son, in Tuesday’s election.
“What we are finding in Rhode Island is exactly what we found in Massachusetts during Scott Brown’s election, and that is extreme voter unrest about the liberal, big-government, agenda that is bankrupting our nation,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, the architect of Mr. Brown’s win and now a strategist with the Loughlin campaign.
“People are just now beginning to wake up to the fact that our country is on the brink of financial ruin and Rhode Island is not immune to the voter backlash that we are witnessing in other parts of the country.”
An NBC10-Quest Research poll released Thursday found Mr. Loughlin trailing Democratic nominee David M. Cicilline by just 2 percentage points.
Whatever the outcome of the race, the election will mark the end of an era in American politics that dates back to 1946 when John F. Kennedy won a House seat in Massachusetts. Each year since then, at least one member of the Kennedy family has been in the White House, the U.S. House, or the U.S. Senate.
“It really is the end of the line for the Kennedys politically because when Patrick Kennedy leaves office I think the only Kennedy left is someone on the Santa Monica City Council,” said Darrell M. West, a former Brown University professor who now works at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “When you think about the fact that at one point they had a president and two senators and now they are down to a city council seat, that pretty much tells the story.”
Robert S. Shriver, a nephew to the former president and brother of California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, is serving his second term on the Santa Monica City Council, this time as mayor.
In Rhode Island, the GOP’s odds of winning the 1st Congressional District increased in February after Patrick J. Kennedy abruptly announced that he would not seek re-election to the seat he has held since 1995.
Now days before Election Day, analysts say Mr. Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, has a slight edge over Mr. Loughlin in the race to represent this diverse district, which extends from the working-class neighborhoods of Woonsocket to the wealthier coastal community of Newport, where John Fitzgerald Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953.
Analysts say Providence Mayor David M. Cicilline, a Democrat, leads Mr. Loughlin, a Republican, in the race to represent this diverse district, which extends from the working-class neighborhoods of Woonsocket to the wealthier coastal community of Newport, where John Fitzgerald Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953.
But the White House isn’t taking any chances and is worried enough to deploy President Obama here this week to campaign for Mr. Cicilline. Meanwhile, Republicans held campaign rallies with Mr. Brown and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele.
“No one is safe in this environment - even in Rhode Island,” said William J. Lynch, who recently stepped down as state Democratic Party chairman after 12 years. “This area is no longer just a blind, openly liberal safe area. Those days are gone.”
Asked why, Mr. Lynch pointed to voter registration numbers over the past two decades that show Rhode Island has gone from having 60 percent of voters registered as Democrats to 60 percent of voters registered as independents.
In many ways, this race and the congressional and gubernatorial races across the country have boiled down to a referendum on opposing governing philosophies, including the big-government approach that the Kennedys helped cultivate during their 64 years in elected office.
“If a Republican wins Patrick Kennedy’s seat in a liberal Democratic state, that really is the end of Camelot,” Mr. West said. “That will signal the ultimate repudiation of government activism in a region that is the most hospitable to that political philosophy.”
The Maryland branch of the sprawling Kennedy family also has seen its share of recent election losses. Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, came up well short in her bid to become Maryland governor in 2002. Mark Shriver, son of the former president’s sister Eunice Kennedy, also hit rough political waters in 2002 when he lost his bid in the Democratic Party primary for a seat in Congress to Chris Van Hollen, who now heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Still, the Kennedy mystique thrives in parts of New England, where the Kennedy clan has come to represent the agonies and ecstasies of life for much of the baby boomer generation -epitomized byJohn F. Kennedy’s successful bid in 1960 to become the country’s first Roman Catholic president and his assassination in Dallas three years later.
The Kennedy story added another chapter last year when Edward M. Kennedy’s death opened up the seat he inherited from his brother 47 years earlier, and Mr. Brown’s victory months later deprived Democrats of the 60th vote they needed to push through their legislative agenda. The national mood seemed to shift from adulation for the liberal lion to a rejection of the political philosophy that he had come to embody.
Sen. John Kerry, who for two decades was the junior senator from Massachusetts serving alongside Mr. Kennedy, said the family has shown that its legacy goes well beyond politics.
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver never held office, but she transformed our country with the Special Olympics. Her children carry that work forward. Patrick Kennedy is carrying forward his work on addiction and mental illness outside Congress. Ted Kennedy Jr. is doing more on disabilities issues outside Washington than many could inside this place,” Mr. Kerry said.
In the Rhode Island race, Patrick Kennedy has been largely absent from the campaign trail. But there are still signs of the Kennedy family. For instance, Mr. Cicilline’s campaign biography prominently mentions his work establishing a College Democrats chapter with John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the former president, who died in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in 1999.
Although Mr. Cicilline’s campaign did not return calls seeking comment on the Kennedy legacy, Mr. Loughlin was happy to talk about the prospect of becoming the second Republican this year to replace a Kennedy and his recollection of President Kennedy’s picture on the family mantle. It still sits in his mother’s house today, he said.
“Especially in Rhode Island and New England, we have a tremendous amount of reverence and respect for the sacrifices the Kennedys have made throughout time and the fact that it was a Massachusetts senator that went on to become president of the United States,” Mr. Loughlin said outside a community center.
But he said that Rhode Islanders learned over time that Patrick Kennedy lacked the speaking skills and overall “statesmanship” that helped make his uncle such a popular political figure, and that the younger Mr. Kennedy represents the modern brand of American liberalism that has fallen out of fashion with voters.
He pointed to the overhaul of the health care system for which Sen. Kennedy spent years fighting, and Mr. Loughlin has joined the chorus of candidates across the country in calling for its repeal.
Standing at the Parkway Tower senior living facility in East Providence this week, beneath a ceiling decorated with Halloween cobwebs and alongside a shelf adorned with a plastic severed foot, Mr. Loughlin told the dozen or so people in attendance that he’s scared to think about how the liberal spending policies coming out of Washington will affect future generations of Americans.
“That spending is going to make their future very, very, cloudy because we are literally spending money that we don’t have and borrowing money we will never be able to afford to pay back,” Mr. Loughlin said. “That’s going to have a terrible effect on our future economy.”
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