Politics' Jill Greenlee weighs in on race to fill Edward Kennedy's U.S. senate seat

She says the candidates are challenged as much by Kennedy's legacy as they are by one another

Jill S. Greenlee

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, Massachusetts residents will vote in the special election primary to replace the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. BrandeisNOW talked with Assistant Professor of Politics Jill S. Greenlee to get her take on the race.
BrandeisNOW: What’s the big story line going into the primary?
Jill Greenlee: Well, the race seems to be basically about the Democratic primary. Obviously, Massachusetts is a pretty left-leaning state, and most of the attention at this point has been on the Democratic candidates. A primary is difficult because most people don’t know a tremendous amount about the candidates, and so the challenge is how the candidates differentiate themselves from the other people who share the same party label. Sometimes it’s just a matter of name recognition, and that may be a big reason why Attorney General Martha Coakley has been the frontrunner the whole time. But the interesting thing is that businessman Steve Pagliuca actually has been up there in terms of name recognition, thanks to all of the advertising he’s done — his name is everywhere on posters when you walk through Harvard Square. But at the same time, if you look at his low poll numbers, all those ads haven’t convinced potential voters.
BrandeisNOW: There are two Republican candidates as well, businessman Jack E. Robinson and state Sen. Scott Brown, who appears to be the heavy favorite. If Brown takes the Republican primary, what do you think his chances will be in the general election?
JG: I’d say this is really going to be the Democratic candidate’s seat to lose. When is the last time we had a Republican member of the Senate from Massachusetts? It was Edward Brooke, and he was elected in the ‘60s, so it’s been a while. Also, this is not just a Senate seat, it’s Ted Kennedy’s seat, and there’s a lot of emotional attachment to that. That’s how the race has been framed.
BrandeisNOW: Framed that way by the candidates or by the media?
JG: I think it’s both, actually. Right from the get-go, from the moment that Ted Kennedy’s health really started failing, people were talking about filling his seat, and there was the whole controversy about when there would be a special election and how the appointment process for an interim senator would work. That became the dominant frame early on. And then you have a much more dynamic Democratic primary going on, where all the candidates are both trying to tie themselves to Ted Kennedy and then be very clear that they’re not a Ted Kennedy because that would be insulting his memory or diminish it. It’s been a balancing act of trying to tie themselves to him but also keep a respectful distance. All of this has made it very much about Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, and then we have the health care debate that’s going on, which was one of the issues that he was known for.
BrandeisNOW: To use a sports analogy, replacing Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is kind of like trying to replace Larry Bird on the Celtics: there is a certain level of expectation there from the public of what that role gives you. Given all that Kennedy accomplished in his 40-plus years in the Senate, and as powerful and visual a figure as he became, will the person who succeeds him face unrealistic expectations?
JG: It’s hard to answer that question, because in my mind it would be foolish to think that a newbie freshman senator would have any of the clout, connections, visibility and institutional power that Kennedy built over many decades. I wonder if anybody thinks that the new senator is going to be able to fill his shoes in that regard. But I do think that there’s going to be some expectation that the new senator is going to uphold some of the issues that Kennedy really fought for. Health care is one of the biggest ones, and generally taking more liberal stances. But the Democratic candidates are not that dissimilar. All of them would probably do a pretty good job of upholding that liberal Kennedy legacy. Even though they’re bashing each other over the head right now trying to show that they’re distinct from one another, they’re not all that different.
As a political scientist, what most piques your curiosity when you think about Tuesday’s primary?
JG: I study gender and politics, so for me this is particularly interesting because we have a female candidate who would be the 18th woman in the Senate, which would be the highest number we’ve ever had. And it’s interesting to me because she has been the frontrunner the whole time. I haven’t seen a lot of the same sort of gender barriers that other female candidates face affect Coakley in the race thus far. We could see this in the general election. Historically, female candidates have had a difficult time running for the Senate, because they’re often viewed through the stereotypes that we have of women, which means that we’re less likely to think they are well-equipped to deal with economic issues or issues of foreign policy, etc. Coakley, in my mind, has appeared as one of the tougher Democratic candidates, and in many ways has not been treated in a stereotypical fashion. She hasn’t come under a lot of attack from the other candidates. So, it will be interesting to me, if she is the Democratic nominee, to see if this continues in the general election, or if we see a more traditional path of gender being used as a lens through which to view a female candidate.
What kind of voter turnout are you expecting for the primary?
JG: Primaries typically don’t have a tremendous amount of participation, so I don’t think we’re going to have a huge turnout. If we could look at mean participation over the last several primaries, its probably going to be higher, because unlike when John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have had to run in a primary, we now have a choice. I suspect people are going to turn out, but probably not in huge numbers.
This is the first time in 25 years that the names of Ted Kennedy or John Kerry won't appear on a Senate election ballot. Given the long congressional careers of both men, should we expect that this lack of turnover will continue with the state’s next senator, or is reelection success in Massachusetts tied more to the person than it is to being an incumbent?
JG: Well, senators have lower reelection rates than do House members. So, incumbency matters less in the Senate, which is a little counterintuitive, given that it has longer election cycles. A lot will be about performance of the individual, and about how Massachusetts is faring economically. It can also be tied to how the senator’s party is faring nationally. I wouldn’t say that we should expect that we’re electing another person who’s going to have a long tenure and a tremendous legacy. I would think of it more as six years at a time.

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