If Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) pursues the Senate race in the Ocean State next year and wins, he would join the fraternity of sons who followed their fathers into the nation’s most exclusive club.
But he would be only the second to simultaneously serve with his father — assuming Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is re-elected next year.
Before pundits begin talking about what a huge shadow Sen. Kennedy would cast over his son, who is not even 40, the younger Kennedy first has to enter the race, win the primary and unseat Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) — none of which is a given.
Kennedy initially passed on the race and threw his support behind Rep. James Langevin (D), but when he caught wind that the junior Congressman was likely to stay put instead of running for Senate, Kennedy said he would reconsider.
Despite holding a substantial early lead over Chafee, Langevin announced Wednesday that he would not run, turning all eyes toward Kennedy.
Kennedy so far has been coy about his intentions and his timetable.
When asked how long the six-term Member would take to reach a decision, his chief of staff, Sean Richardson, answered: “As long as he needs, and no longer than he has to.”
Jim Hagan, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce said it would behoove Kennedy and former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, another Democrat mulling the race, to make up their minds sooner rather than later.
“If the person doesn’t get out there in the next two or three months … he has to have time to raise the necessary resources,” Hagan said.
Whitehouse said he understands that the clock is ticking.
“I have not given myself a precise timeline,” he said Friday. “I understand that time is marching on and that I need to move expeditiously and I will.”
Initially, some observers believed Kennedy was trying to nudge Langevin out of the race. Though Kennedy acknowledged before Langevin publicly sidelined himself that he would revisit his decision based on Langevin’s, Michael Guilfoyle, Langevin’s spokesman, said Kennedy did not make those statements until being told that his colleague would not run.
“Congressman Langevin made his decision about a week and half ago and Rep. Kennedy continued to be a strong supporter of his candidacy,” Guilfoyle said last week. “They’re very good friends and have a tremendous working relationship.”
While announcing his decision, Langevin gave short-shrift to the candidacy of Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, the only declared Democrat in the Senate race.
“Since day one, Matt Brown has never been a factor in his decision,” Guilfoyle said. “Matt Brown feared a Langevin candidacy.”
Though only two years into his first term of elective office, Brown has aggressively been campaigning and fundraising for his Senate bid.
Before Langevin laid out his plans, he came under fire from Brown’s supporters for his stance on abortion.
Brown supports abortion rights while Langevin opposes them.
Chafee also supports abortion rights.
Activists picketed Langevin’s Providence fundraiser earlier this month and penned letters to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee complaining about its efforts to entice abortion-rights foes into high-profile Senate races in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
Langevin denies that was a factor in his decision.
“The abortion issue has never worked in Rhode Island; it has never decided an election,” he said Friday. “In fact, those candidates who have chosen to exploit it have lost.”
Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Langevin’s decision is a sign of Chafee’s strength.
“He made the right decision not to roll the political dice and gamble his future by taking on a such a formidable opponent,” Nick said.
But Langevin said he simply prefers working in the House for now.
“I am rising through the ranks of the leadership team, I’m Senior Deputy Whip — I feel that I can do more for Rhode Island right now where I am,” he said.
Langevin also said he is encouraging Kennedy and Whitehouse to challenge Chafee. “I think either one will make a very strong candidate and will win.”
Hagan is less confident.
“I think Chafee is vulnerable but by no means would I count him out,” Hagan said. “He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
When Langevin decided to skip the contest, Brown put out a polite statement thanking Langevin for his House service and asking his would-be supporters to join him.
Brown refuses to step aside for Kennedy or Whitehouse or anyone else and bristles at the notion that he should try to make a deal with state party leaders or Kennedy to get out of the race.
“This election isn’t going to be decided by a handful of politicians and political insiders, it’s going to be decided by the people of Rhode Island; it just doesn’t work that way anymore,” said Brown spokesman Matt Burgess.
But Brown could suffer from a perception that he is in too big a hurry and is not willing to wait his turn, Hagan said.
“One of Brown’s challenges is he’s so obvious, he’s so aggressive, it could backfire on him,” Hagan said.
Democrats should avoid a primary at all costs if they want to win, he added.
“In order to beat Chafee, they can’t have a tough primary,” he said. “It’s very tough to take an incumbent out up here.”
Nick said Republicans do not believe Kennedy will run.
“We expect Kennedy will take a look at the same things Langevin did and see that Chafee is a tough person to beat and make the same decision and decide not to enter the race,” he said.
For his part, Edward Kennedy, who has already served in the Senate with his late brother Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), has said he will support his son whatever he decides.
Currently, there are six scions of Senators serving in the Senate: Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Chafee, Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
Some have big legends to live up to, others may be avenging a father’s defeat or disgrace, and some may have already eclipsed the parent.
During her election campaign last year, Murkowski was praised effusively by Alaska’s senior Senator, Ted Stevens (R), who has served with both father and daughter. Stevens joked that the younger Murkowski was proving to be a better Senator than her father, Frank.
Dodd’s father, Thomas Dodd, prosecuted suspected World War II war criminals during the trials at Nuremberg before being elected to the Senate. However, he was ultimately disgraced when in 1967 he was censured by his colleagues for misusing funds.
Bayh avenged the 1980 defeat of his more liberal father, Birch Bayh, by retaking the seat he had held for three terms in the 1998 open-seat contest.
Chafee won the seat his late father, John Chafee, who was beloved in Rhode Island, held until his 1999 death.
Chafee was appointed to finish his father’s term and then won the seat outright in 2000. While popular, the younger Chafee has yet to reach the iconic status his father enjoyed throughout much of his career.
One interesting case is that of the Longs, Senate Historian Richard Baker said.
Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) was assassinated in 1935 and his widow, Rose Long, was appointed to finish his term. In 1948 Russell Long was elected to the seat previously held by both his parents, Baker said.
While many children of Senators no doubt enjoy an advantage when seeking higher office — there have been more than 40 to follow their fathers into the Senate — only one Senator’s son got to serve with his father.
Sen. Augustus Dodge (D) of Iowa and Sen. Henry Dodge (D) of Wisconsin were both first elected in 1848 and were two of the first people to serve those new states in the Senate.
Augustus Dodge served under his father Henry, an Army colonel, in the Winnebago war of 1827 and the Black Hawk war of 1832.
The younger Dodge was the first of the two to leave the Senate.
While many modern-day Senate children are seen as living a life of privilege, Dodge made clear in an exchange on the Senate floor that he was not a spoiled son.
“I tell the Senator from Mississippi, in presence of my father, who will attest its truth, that I have performed, and do perform when I am at home, all of those menial services.” Appeltons Encyclopedia recounts the younger Dodge as saying. “As a general thing, I saw my own wood and do all my own marketing. I never had a servant, of any color, to wait upon me a day in all my life. I have driven teams, horses, mules and oxen, and considered myself as respectable then as I now do, or as any Senator upon this floor is.”