In the minds of most people living today, there is no memory of a time when a Kennedy did not serve in Congress.
When Edward Kennedy died last year, it was the first time in nearly half a century that a Kennedy did not sit in the U.S. Senate. But his youngest son, Patrick, continued the family tradition as a member of the House, serving Rhode Island's First District.
Now, however, Patrick Kennedy has announced that he will not seek re–election this year. And, as the last Kennedy in Congress makes preparations to leave, it is reasonable to wonder if the Kennedy family will ever send another one of its own to Washington.
Undoubtedly, there are Republicans who are wondering today if Kennedy's open House seat could be picked off in the midterm elections. My initial inclination would be to say no. Kennedy was first elected in the Republican year of 1994 with 54% of the vote, and he was routinely re–elected seven times, usually with two–thirds of the voters supporting him.
The district seems to be solidly Democratic. In the last 70 years, it has been represented by a Republican for only six. In 2008, when the district gave Kennedy 69% of the vote, it gave Barack Obama 65%. In fact, in the last 10 presidential elections, Kennedy's district has only supported the Republican nominee twice — and by very narrow margins (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard Nixon in 1972).
But appearances can be deceiving. Maybe Kennedy owed much of his success to the magic of the Kennedy name. Maybe Rhode Island Republicans, who seem — on the surface and from a distance — to have more in common with the "Rockefeller Republicans," the liberals and centrists who once had influence in their party, than the vast majority of Republicans today, can be competitive in 2010.
John Mulligan of the Providence Journal writes that "Kennedy's surprise decision ... instantly raises the prospects for the congressman's Republican opponent ... and may spur a fight among Democratic contenders for the seat.
"But Kennedy's decision 'absolutely, unequivocally has nothing to do with' the congressman's poor showing in recent polls, the shocking election of another little–known Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, to his father's Senate seat or the generally grim mood of voters in Rhode Island and around the country, according to ... the congressman's former chief of staff."
I have heard speculation today that Kennedy's decision was inevitable after his father died, and, indeed, there were indications in his eulogy last August of how deeply he was affected by the loss. He spoke of his childhood struggle with asthma and how it was a blessing for "a child who craved his father's love and attention." He spoke, on that occasion, of how his father remained a "magical figure" in his eyes as he grew up, of how his father found a loophole that permitted Patrick to sail on his crew.
"Just as proud as I was to be a crew on his sailboat, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him in the United States Congress as his colleague," Patrick said in his eulogy. "I used to hang on to his T–shirt and his coat sleeve on the Capitol when I was just a little boy. So when I got a chance to serve with him on Capitol Hill, all I needed to do was set my compass to the principles of his life."
Since his father's death, I have had the sense that Patrick's compass increasingly was pointing him in different directions — away from memories of sharing something special with his father.
"I will really miss working with Dad," Patrick said the day his father was buried. "I will miss my Dad's wonderful sense of self–deprecating humor. When the far right made Dad their poster child for their attack ads, he used to say, 'We Kennedys sure bring out the best in people!' "
I don't know where Patrick Kennedy will go at this point in his life, but I hope he finds the fulfillment that will bring out the best in him.
Like his father did.