The departure of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island, who is retiring at the end of the year, could leave the next Congress without a member of the Kennedy family for the first time in nearly half a century.
“We all know how difficult the past few years have been,” Kennedy said in a video ad to air on Sunday – noting both the struggles of Rhode Island families, as well as his own loss in August of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“Now having spent two decades in politics, my life is taking a new direction," he said.
Kennedy was first elected to Congress in a tough year for Democrats, who in 1994 lost control of the House they had held for 48 years. His announced departure comes at what could be another rough campaign season for Democrats.
More Americans now say they would vote for the Republican candidate (39 percent) than the Democratic candidate (35 percent), if midterm House elections were held today, according to a Franklin & Marshall College National Poll released on Friday. In September, Democrats led Republicans on a generic House ballot 43 percent to 30 percent.
Kennedy, who often won his reelection bids with a 30-point spread, was down to a 35 percent approval rating in his district, according to a local WPRI-TV television poll last week – a trend confirmed by private polls.
Republicans already targeting the seat
Republicans had targeted Kennedy’s seat as a possible pickup even before today’s reports of a resignation. “Given the direction things are headed both in the Northeast and in the country, Democrats are sinking in popularity,” says Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
“The threat of a credible challenge was one of the big reasons why Kennedy left the race,” he says, citing the success of Republican Scott Brown in winning the by-election for Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. That victory deprived Democrats of their supermajority of 60 votes.
“But it’s obviously a very difficult seat. It’s New England,” Mr. Blair adds.
Independent political analysts say that reports of Kennedy’s vulnerability are overblown. “This eastern Rhode Island district has forgiven Kennedy’s flaws many times over and is almost prohibitively Democratic,” says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report.
“In 1994, when Kennedy first won at age 27, this was one of only four seats in the country that switched from the GOP to Democratic control,” he adds. President Obama won here with 65 percent of the vote.
A franchise of the family business
“My son found his welcome to electoral politics delivered with a bare knuckle or two,” wrote Edward Kennedy in his memoir, “True Compass.”
Six years later, he faced similar criticism over the use of the family name when he ran for and won a seat in the US House. Kennedy told voters that his family connections would help him get things done for the district.
The drama of Kennedy’s years in the House was the struggle of Democrats to get back their majority. In 1998, Kennedy won his bid to direct that effort as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – a job typically given to someone in a very safe seat. Kennedy raised what was at the time a vast sum of money for Democratic candidates, some $50 million. But he was less successful at recruiting effective candidates, and Democrats fell six seats short of winning back the House.
The national campaign also created strains with voters at home. Critics noted that Kennedy spent only 40 days in the state during that election year. In a turnaround, he refocused energies on targeting government funding to Rhode Island, including expanding community health centers and after-school programs and protecting jobs at naval facilities.
While typically voting with liberals, Kennedy split with his father on the Iraq War resolution in 2002, which Senator Kennedy famously opposed.
He also broke with abortion-rights groups to vote to ban a procedure dubbed by critics “partial birth abortion."
His signature legislative achievement was cosponsoring, with his father, a 2004 law ending discrimination against the mentally ill.
“Illness took the life of my most cherished mentor and confidant, my ultimate source of spirit and strength,” he said in his resignation statement. He also thanked the people of Rhode Island: “When I made missteps and suffered setbacks, you responded not with contempt, but with compassion” – referring to personal struggles with addiction and depression.
Kennedy says that he will continue to fight on behalf of those suffering from depression, addiction, autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
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