Democrats exiting the sinking ship? Part 21: Rep. Patrick Kennedy 

Congressman Patrick Kennedy of the 1st district of Rhode Island has announced that he will not run for reelection. He turns 43 later this year. He was first elected to the House in 1994 after serving six years in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Kennedy is of course the son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who died last year, and Patrick Kennedy was obviously dismayed when Republican Scott Brown won the seat in the January 19 special election; despite Brown’s gracious words about his father in his victory speech, Patrick Kennedy called his candidacy a “joke.”

In the video announcing his retirement from the House, Kennedy struck a higher tone. “My father instilled in me a deep commitment to public service, whether through elected office, like he and his brothers, or nonprofit advocacy, like my aunt Eunice's work with Special Olympics. Now, having spent two decades in politics, my life has taken a new direction, and I will not be a candidate for reelection this year."

Some might call Patrick Kennedy’s political career a joke, but I think that’s unfair.

He did have obvious personal problems, which became apparent when he crashed his Mustang into a Jersey barrier on Capitol Hill in the wee hours of the morning in 2006, and he has said that he underwent rehab in 2006 and 2009. But I’m inclined to cut some slack for someone whose family has undergone more than its share of tragedies and difficulties (including his mother’s alcoholism).

As a congressman, Patrick Kennedy worked hard as an appropriator securing federal projects, including military installations, for Rhode Island, and he showed some independence of judgment in voting for the Iraq war resolution when his father was vigorously opposing it. (He later said his vote was a mistake.)

Even before Kennedy’s retirement announcement, Republicans were touting the candidacy of state Representative John Loughlin, who was named one of their “Young Turks.” Rhode Island 1 is a heavily Democratic district: it voted 65%-33% for Barack Obama in 2008 and 62%-36% for John Kerry in 2004. But Rhode Island has elected Republicans to the House as recently as 1992, when Republican Ron Machtley was reelected to a third term in Rhode Island 1.

And if Republican fortunes plummeted between 1994, when Kennedy won the seat by beating an attractive Republican, Kevin Vigilante, 54%-45%, and 2008, they seem to have become much better in 2009 and 2010. Scott Brown ran about even in Massachusetts 4, the district represented by Barney Frank, which adjoins Rhode Island 1. That district has performed similarly in recent presidential elections (63%-35% for Obama, 65%-33% for Kerry) and it is demographically similar to Rhode Island 1. Both have old mill and factory towns, and in Massachusetts 4 turnout in Fall River and New Bedford was down sharply as compared to the 2006 general election (in which the statewide turnout was almost identical to the January 19 special election); see this analysis and this one for more detail.

Turnout was relatively robust in Massachusetts 4’s gentry liberal towns of Brookline and Newton, which have large Jewish and academic populations, and they delivered solid Democratic margins. Rhode Island 1 has similar areas in Providence, around Brown University, and in Jewish neighborhoods. But they don’t form as large a percentage of the district as Brookline and Newton do in Massachusetts 4.

So is this district a possible pickup for Republicans? Yes, though the odds seem unfavorable. But, at this moment, not as unfavorable as the odds looked for Scott Brown before the January 5 announcement of the Rasmussen poll showing him trailing Democrat Martha Coakley by only 50%-41%. He won 14 days later.

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