Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

What happened in Massachusetts?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 20, 2010

The Kennedy dynasty has ended.

It was probably over in August, when Ted Kennedy died, because the long love affair between the Kennedy family and the voters of Massachusetts was personal rather than political. Another member of the Kennedy clan might have claimed that extraordinary legacy, but when the family could not produce a political heir, the Kennedy mystique could not be transferred to another Democratic candidate.

With the victory of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election on January 19, the end of the Kennedy dynasty was announced clearly to the world. A Senate seat that has been held since 1952 by a member of the Kennedy family (or, for two short stretches, by college roommates who served as designated place-holders for the Kennedys) is now held by a Republican. The political landscape of Massachusetts has been changed forever.

There are rich ironies in the stunning result from Massachusetts. For decades Ted Kennedy had fought for a sweeping national health-care reform. The “Obamacare” program, which was so close to Congressional approval, would surely have been packaged as a posthumous tribute to the late Senator’s efforts. Now that legislation may be doomed by the opposition of the man who will replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate.

To compound the irony, Scott Brown is a US Senator today only because on his deathbed Ted Kennedy asked for, and won, a change in the state laws governing a special election. If the law had not been changed, his permanent successor would have been elected in November 2010. Kennedy’s own hand-picked replacement, Paul Kirk, would have remained in the Senate for nearly another full year, during which time he might well have cast the deciding vote in favor of health-care reform. But now Kirk—whose temporary authority ended with the election—is powerless to advance his old friend's plans.

In a final irony, Scott Brown won the election in part because he convinced the voters of Massachusetts that he—not the liberal Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley—embodied the spirit that John F. Kennedy had brought to Massachusetts politics. In campaign ads, Brown reminded his constituency that Jack Kennedy favored tax cuts and strong national defense. The Republican candidate boldly severed the ties between President Kennedy—who would be judged a conservative by today’s standards—and the liberal Democrats who have long laid claim to the “Camelot” legacy.

As long as Ted Kennedy remained alive, that deft political maneuver was impossible. Unlike his elder brother, Ted chose to align himself with the liberal wing of the Democratic party. Still he was the unquestioned heir to the Kennedy political fortune, thus assured of the voters' loyalty. His political strength was based on his family name, not his ideological agenda. Massachusetts is a liberal state, but Ted Kennedy could have won and retained a Senate seat even if he had advanced conservative ideas.

When I ran against Ted in 2000, I saw at first hand how thoroughly the Kennedy mystique had captivated the voters. Ordinarily intelligent commentators questioned whether an election was even necessary, since no one doubted another Kennedy victory. At the annual Pro-Life Walk on Boston Common, I encountered dozens of activists who told me that they could not consider voting against a Kennedy, despite Ted’s unswerving support for unrestricted legal abortion on demand. Voting against a Kennedy was seen by thousands of voters as something akin to blasphemy: a prospect from which they recoiled instinctively, regardless of the circumstances. In theory, each fresh Senate election gave Ted Kennedy only a 6-year term. But in effect he was Senator for Life.

Nevertheless, the “Kennedy seat” never became a Democratic seat, or a liberal seat, as Martha Coakley learned on January 19. The people of Massachusetts had cast their lot with the Kennedy family, but they had not enrolled in the liberal Democratic crusade.

“But wait!” the reader might say. Haven’t Democrats controlled Massachusetts for years? Wasn’t the state’s Congressional delegation composed exclusively of Democrats, until Brown broke the monopoly? Don’t Democrats enjoy an overwhelming majority in the state house, and a 3-to-1 advantage in voter registration?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Democrats dominate their Republican opponents—if Republican opponents can be found. But that demonstrates only the pathetic weakness of the GOP in Massachusetts. There is another important factor, which nearly everyone—and certainly the Democratic leadership—had overlooked.

The majority of registered voters in Massachusetts are neither Democrats nor Republicans, but independents (or, in local parlance, “unenrolled” voters). These independents clearly have no great love for the GOP; they have cast their votes consistently for the Kennedys and their allies. Yet isn’t it interesting that they have never followed the Kennedys into the Democratic fold? Again, their commitment was to the family, not the political agenda.

Thus when Ted died, and the “Kennedy seat” became vacant, the Democratic party blithely assumed that the Senate seat would remain their property. But the voters did not. Scott Brown captured the mood of the electorate, and delivered the most memorable line of the campaign, when in a televised debate he thundered that this Senate seat was not the “Kennedy seat” (not any more, at least), nor the “Democratic seat,” but “the people’s seat.”

So Brown made his appeal to the people, while Coakley—still working under the illusion that the Senate seat was reserved for a liberal Democrat—appealed exclusively to the political left. Her campaign literature was obviously designed to tap into the sympathies of left-wing ideologues; she never made an effort to reach out toward the political center. As the race tightened, her rhetoric became all the more shrill. Again and again she hammered on the abortion issue, charging that Brown would jeopardize “a woman’s right to choose.” That appeal was completely misguided. Abortion advocates had always been in Coakley’s camp. But she seemed incapable of recognizing that there might be voters who were not zealous advocates of abortion-on-demand. She planned her campaign to capture the “Kennedy seat,” assuming that Ted Kennedy’s appeal had been ideological, that if she espoused the same causes that Ted Kennedy had championed, her victory would be assured. Not so.

It would be gratifying to think that Scott Brown won because he appealed to pro-life and pro-family sentiments. Unfortunately it would not be true. Brown endorses the Roe v. Wade decision: that is, he supports legal abortion. He says that he would vote for some restrictions on abortion, and his voting record in the Massachusetts legislature is consistent with that claim, but the willingness to regulate the slaughter of the unborn does not make him a pro-life champion, as I have argued earlier. Nor did the Republican contender make any effort to rally pro-life support. On the contrary, when the largest pro-life organization in Massachusetts endorsed him, Brown airily dismissed their aid, telling the press that anyone was free to endorse him. While Coakley pounded away at the abortion issue, Brown ignored it, concentrating instead on his image as an ordinary guy, driving a pickup truck and hoping to fill “the people’s seat.” He won because he convinced the people of Massachusetts that he would represent them, rather than the liberal ideology that has dominated state politics for so long.

The long-term significance of Brown’s victory is that it detached the Kennedy mystique from the liberal ideology to which it had become attached. Brown did not replace that ideology with a healthier alternative; he did not advance a consistent political philosophy of his own. But his victory nonetheless marks a watershed point in the political history of Massachusetts, and even of the US. The Kennedy dynasty has ended.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Jan. 25, 2010 3:42 PM ET USA

    Based on Cardnial Ratzinger's letter of September, 2004 to US Bishops one could vote for Scott Brown on the grounds that he would cast the critical 41 Repbulican vote to prevent universal health care, which includes federal funding for a abortion, "for other reasons." Would not a vote for Brown be permitted also on the grounds that his election now is critical for his reelection in 2012 when he might also have the chance to vote in favor of a pro-life nominee to the Supreme Court?

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Jan. 24, 2010 11:04 PM ET USA

    Scott Brown may not be pro-life but he's at least not an ideologue like Coakley. The pro-life movement can work with him, and this election had no true pro-life alternative. The pro-life voters of Massachusetts (yes, they are out there) voted in large part for Brown because he was the least of two evils.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jan. 24, 2010 5:11 PM ET USA

    I too celebrate Brown's win, but a word of caution's in order: Not only is Brown pro-abortion, he also has a liberal constituency. If he expects to stay in office, he must prove he's a "man of the people." In his case that means being a liberal. Yes, he beat the Kennedy mystique and he beat the Democratic candidate, but don't think those wins mean he is a conservative. My guess is he's center left. So yes, let's celebrate but let's also not let our guard down. There is still work to do.

  • Posted by: amynocera1396 - Jan. 23, 2010 6:59 PM ET USA

    There is one error here - the change in MA state law governing the senate seat allowed the MA Governor to appoint someone to fill the seat until a special election could be held, so that the Democrats could maintain their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. In fact, this would reverse the Democratic legislature's 2004 law, which prohibited the governor from filling the seat until a special election could be held, so John Kerry's seat could not be filled by an appointee of Republican Gov. Romney.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 22, 2010 10:04 PM ET USA

    I can see that Massachusetts is an unhealthy state for republicans. I wonder why? You've still a politician that believes in abortion. Brown won because he discovered the people were against the health bill as bankrupting the nation. You mean that there isn't one republican with the guts to sound off on abortion, or is the large catholic population of Massachusetts so abortion oriented they don't care how many babies are killed.

  • Posted by: ChoosingLife - Jan. 21, 2010 8:09 AM ET USA

    The significance of a so-called pro-life organization endorsing Brown, knowing he's pro-death, shows true colors. I cannot envision Planned Parenthood endorsing Alan Keyes without solicitation. The Kennedy regime is dying out the same way as Catholic dissenters. Brown’s win has set a dangerous precedent for the elections playbook in 2012. 100% pro-lifers will be thrown under the bus, again, and we will be told that we must compromise to "win." Thank God we know Who wins in the end.