Byron York: Massachusetts Republican gambles on Kennedy card 


People didn't expect much from a Republican candidate for Sen. Ted Kennedy's old seat, but Scott Brown, a GOP state senator, sensed that voters were tired of one-party rule, both in Massachusetts and in Washington. He thought they might be ready for a change.

But Christmas was approaching and Brown's opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, was largely ignoring him, as were the press and pretty much everybody else. The election was set for Jan. 19. How could Brown get in the game?

He did it by taking one of the biggest risks a Republican can take in Massachusetts: He played the Kennedy card.

The Brown team looked up a 1962 speech in which John F. Kennedy argued for a tax cut. They made a commercial that began with Kennedy speaking -- "The billions of dollars this bill will place in the hands of the consumer and our businessmen will have both immediate and permanent benefits to our economy" -- and dissolved into Brown, picking up JFK's words with, "Every dollar released from taxation that is spent or invested will help create a new job and a new salary. ..."

It was a powerful message. And Brown knew he was inviting a "You're no Jack Kennedy" moment -- a replay of the 1988 vice presidential debate in which Dan Quayle compared himself with JFK and opponent Lloyd Bentsen slammed Quayle to the ground with the famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" line.

"The potential for backlash was there," says Eric Fehrnstrom, a veteran of Massachusetts politics who is advising the Brown campaign. "But our thought was, the biggest risk you can take as a Republican running for office in Massachusetts is not to take any risk at all."

As it turns out, Coakley is no Lloyd Bentsen. There were no put-downs, and the ad worked.

"It started running on a Wednesday, and by Sunday we knew we were on the verge of really exploding into the public consciousness," says Fehrnstrom. People began to focus on the new taxes they'll face if Coakley wins and casts the decisive vote to pass the Democrats' national health care plan. The Brown campaign began to take off, and then really take off. The last two weeks, Fehrnstrom says, have been "like being shot out of a cannon."

Faced with a genuine phenomenon, the Coakley forces are trying every day to tie Brown to Republicans and conservatives who are unpopular in Massachusetts. Coakley has linked Brown to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney so often that at their last debate he shot back, "Ms. Coakley, you can run against Bush-Cheney all you want, but I'm Scott Brown."

After retaining the services of one of the Democratic National Committee's top spinners, the Coakley campaign then tried to tie Brown to Sarah Palin. Coakley's spokesman demanded that Brown tell the world whether he sought the former Alaska governor's endorsement, and if not, why not. The problem was, he hadn't -- and there was absolutely no connection at all between Brown and Palin.

After that, it was time for the talk radio card. "Would you welcome the support of someone like a Rush Limbaugh, who apparently has been asked to come up?" Brown was asked at a news conference Wednesday. "No one's been asked to come out my behalf," Brown answered. "This race isn't going to be won by outside people coming in." (Just for the record, Limbaugh himself says, "First I've heard of this. No one's asked. Would decline if anyone did.")

In the face of all that, Brown has been trying to carve out a new political niche for himself, as a "Scott Brown Republican." He doesn't run away from the R-word; he and his advisers are well aware of Massachusetts Republicans who in the past have tried to downplay or even hide their party affiliation. But at the same time he's telling everyone that he's his own man. "I don't owe anybody anything at all," he said Wednesday. "I don't owe the national party anything."

Brown's strategists are quick to point out that people not affiliated with either party make up the largest single voting bloc in Massachusetts, and that the state has elected a bunch of moderate Republican governors. But it's been more than 30 years since there was a GOP senator from Massachusetts. No one in the party would mind if the next one called himself a Scott Brown Republican.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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