Kennedy Is Less Likely GOP Target

Posted May 23, 2008 at 5:33pm

Alabama Republican House candidate Jay Love cut a new campaign commercial two weeks ago that talked about “their” liberal agenda in Washington, D.C.

The ad contained the usual themes used to rile conservative voters in rural southeast Alabama: higher taxes, government funding of abortion, gay marriage.

The pictures that flashed across the screen were intended to stoke the ire of hard-line Republicans just as much — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the liberal lion himself, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

But when news broke last week that Kennedy was suffering from a life-threatening malignant brain tumor, the Love campaign quickly reshot the commercial, replacing Kennedy with likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Political messaging, it seems, does have its limits.

“The reason we took it down was simply out of respect for Sen. Kennedy and his family,” Love campaign manager Michael Lowry said last week. “Just like any other family that is going through cancer, our thoughts and prayers go out to them.”

Lowry said Love may not agree with Kennedy’s politics and “as long as he’s in service and front and center for the Democratic party, his politics and his issues are a legitimate discussion point in campaigns.”

But Kennedy’s health issues have overridden all of that.

“It’s simple human decency to take it down,” he said.

Indeed Kennedy’s condition has caused a bit of a detente among those Republicans who have for so long made Kennedy the man they’ve loved to hate.

“Up here in Massachusetts everybody is very sad about the news about Ted, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said Charley Manning, a Republican media consultant based in Boston. “He has been our Senator since 1962. We all grew up with him.”

Manning, who has worked for several Republican candidates who have challenged Kennedy over the years, said that with his outspoken style and recognizable family name (not to mention his past history of scandal), Kennedy always made good fodder for GOP candidates.

It was something Manning remembered making use of when he worked on Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 1994 Senate campaign against the man who was known even then as one of Congress’ leading liberals.

“Nationally, Ted Kennedy has always been a lightning rod,” Manning said. “He’s been one of the best Republican fundraisers for years. People would put on the outside of direct-mail letters ‘Ted Kennedy doesn’t want you to open this envelope.’ And of course good old Republicans couldn’t wait to tear that envelop open and send a check to certain Republican candidates.”

In fact, after Kennedy’s victory in that 1994 campaign, political columnist Ron Faucheux published a column in which he argued that all things considered, Kennedy’s victory was probably a good thing for the Republican party at the time.

“For Republican activists and fundraisers, losing Teddy would have been like losing your first dog,” Faucheux wrote in a column for Campaigns & Elections magazine. Alluding to the famous Richard Nixon quote, Faucheux said the GOP should be thankful that they still have “Ted Kennedy to kick around some more.”

And kick him around they did.

Thumb your way through a stack of old newspaper campaign clips and it won’t be long before you come across a speech like the one former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) gave at an Oklahoma fundraiser in 2004 for then-Senate candidate Tom Coburn (R).

Referring to Coburn’s challenger, Nickles said a vote for Democrat Brad Carson “is a vote for Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to run the Senate. … If we don’t win this seat, we won’t be in control of the Senate. It’s that important.”

By all accounts, Kennedy has always taken it as a compliment that Republicans have gone to such lengths to attack him.

“It’s a sign of how effective he is that he’s been used for years in these ads,” one former Kennedy staffer said last week. “He’s always taken it as a badge of honor that they would spend so much time trying to vilify him or raise money off of him.”

And Republicans say that over the years, Kennedy gave as good as he got.

Longtime Kennedy critic Howie Carr, who runs a syndicated radio show in New England, pointed to the 1988 controversy that erupted when it came out that Kennedy had backed a rider in a budget bill that ordered the Federal Communications Commission to enforce a rule that kept a person from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast television station in the same city.

The move was a shot aimed directly at conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose Boston Herald and New York Post newspapers were two of the biggest sources for anti-Kennedy commentary in the country.

“They play rough,” Carr said of the Kennedys. “He forced Rupert to settle the matter in Boston. He had to sell his TV station and buy it back a few years later for $60 million more. So you could say Rupert didn’t back down to Ted, but on the other hand, it cost Rupert 60 million bucks.”

On his radio show last week, Carr said that while some callers have wanted to tee off on age-old Kennedy issues, like the Chappaquiddick scandal, he’s tried to lay off his favorite target.

“You don’t want to be seen as piling on … It’s just rather tasteless,” Carr said, especially as Kennedy and his doctors work their way though his various treatment options.

There are, of course, always Pelosi, Obama and Clinton — reliably incendiary faces that can be used to whip up the opposition.

And, Carr said, the Kennedy family name is not going anywhere.

“What everybody assumes is there will be another Kennedy to kick around,” Carr said.