Is picking Caroline Kennedy the easy way out?

For national Democrats, the main concern in filling Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is simply who can hold onto it.


Mike Madden
December 18, 2008 2:29AM (UTC)

Caroline Kennedy has never run for public office. But day by day, she seems to be getting closer and closer to becoming New York's junior member of the U.S. Senate.

Two days after confirming publicly that she wanted the job, Kennedy headed to Syracuse to seek support from upstate Democrats, making brief remarks to reporters there but refusing to answer questions. In Washington, meanwhile, she seems to have already lined up most of the help she'll need -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is campaigning for her actively, and her would-be rivals have been left with no better way to stop her than to complain about her lack of qualifications.

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"She has name recognition," Rep. Gary Ackerman told a talk radio host last week, "but so does J-Lo."

It's not hard to sympathize with Ackerman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Rep. Gregory Meeks and anyone else who feels like they're in danger of being passed over for the latest political celebrity. This Senate seat in particular seems to be out of reach even for normal run-of-the-mill politicians -- Bobby Kennedy (Caroline's uncle, of course) held it in the 1960s, and the only reason it's becoming vacant is because Hillary Clinton is leaving it. Kennedy didn't even get involved in electoral politics until this year, when she endorsed Barack Obama (and helped get her other uncle, Ted Kennedy, to do the same). And as Salon's Mark Schone has been pointing out lately, Kennedy wouldn't be getting the same kind of consideration if everyone knew her as Caroline Schlossberg.

But that may actually be what Democrats like about her. With a famous name, and an instantly high profile, she won't have to do too much work to hold the seat in two years -- or, even better from the perspective of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to scare serious Republican contenders away from challenging her for it. "Nobody wants to worry about the New York Senate seat" in the 2010 elections, one Democratic strategist who works on Senate races, who asked for anonymity to speak more freely about the situation, told Salon. Concerns about continuing a family dynasty probably aren't even entering into the considerations about the seat, at least not in D.C.

"One of the first things you have to take into account is whether or not the candidate can win," the strategist said. "You can have a candidate who is a dud, but happens to be the grandson of politician X, who's awful -- and then what do you got? If she's a good candidate, then she's a good candidate, and it doesn't make a difference if she's the granddaughter of Joe the Plumber."

Such is the state of realpolitik these days. Especially with Ken Salazar leaving the Senate, setting off what could be a tough battle to hold on to Colorado's seat, the idea of a Kennedy -- with easy access to lots of campaign cash and no need to worry about name recognition anywhere in the state -- swooping in to solve a potential problem before it becomes one may prove tough to resist. It remains to be seen whether New York Gov. David Patterson, who -- along with Sen. Chuck Schumer -- will also be running for reelection on the same ticket with whoever he picks, finds that argument persuasive, too.

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Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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