A recent Blue Mass Group poll in the special U.S. Senate race has Democrat Martha Coakley leading Republican Scott Brown 49 to 41 percent, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent. That poll also found 5 percent are undecided and another 5 percent support independent candidate Joseph L. Kennedy.
Another new poll, from Suffolk University, has Brown ahead of Coakley by four points.
With such a thin margin between the front-runners, Kennedy's bid could prove a deciding factor. Kennedy will be listed on the ballot as an independent, but he espouses a set of libertarian principles that in recent years have gained popularity through the candidacy of Texas Congressman Ron Paul and the "Tea Party" movement.
A Very Different Sort Of Kennedy
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Kennedy is that he is on the ballot — no small feat in Massachusetts.
Of course, if you were to call some of the 10,000-plus people who signed Kennedy’s nomination papers, like I did, you might have a few conversations like the one I had with Michael Leblanc of Quincy:
“Do you know if Joe Kennedy is related to Ted Kennedy?” I asked.
“Uh, not sure," Leblanc said. "I believe so. Is he?”
So, does Kennedy himself get tired of answering the name question?
“At the very, very beginning, I was very tired of answering the name question because people would say ‘Joe Kennedy’s not running,’ and I would say, ‘No, I’m standing right here in front of you'," Kennedy told me, laughing. "'You’re right, I’m not running, I’m standing.’ ”
We’re at the Green Dragon Tavern across from Union Oyster House, and it’s not the very beginning of the campaign anymore. A lot people know this isn’t 1-800-JOE-4-OIL. This Joe Kennedy has 1,400 Facebook fans, a couple of whom have driven some distance here on a Saturday night just to meet the self-described “only small government candidate” in this race.
People like Scott Humphries, who approaches Kennedy while we're chatting at the bar.
"I’m sorry to interrupt," Humphries says. "I wanted to shake your hand. I’ll vote for you on Jan. 19.”
“Oh, fantastic," Kennedy says.
"I saw your Facebook event," Humphries tells him. "I visit your page quite a bit.”
“Oh, fantastic,” Kennedy repeats.
Humphries is a dad from Millis, who says he never much cared about politics until two or three years ago.
"Watched a little bit of Ron Paul — he’s startin’ to kind of seep in a little bit," Humphries says. "You know, it still took a little while for the philosophy to come together.”
“Well the press likes to drown Dr. Paul, and they wanna make fun of Dr. Paul," Kennedy says.
The Ron Paul Effect
"I really want the American people to wake up and challenge the system," Ron Paul said after losing the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. "You can't get in on debates, you can't get in on the ballots — the parties are the same."
Joe Kennedy took that message to heart. He has proven that a so-called “liberty candidate” can get on the ballots — and in on debates.
"We have to cut spending," Kennedy said during a recent Senate debate at UMass Boston with Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown.
“Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — you’re ready to cut them?" moderator David Gergen asked.
“Yes, I am ready to take on the entitlement programs," Kennedy said. "I’ve said it before, I’ll do it again.”
That kind of bold positioning earned Kennedy five points in at least two recent polls. Then again, it’s five points. What’s the point?
“I think if there’s gonna be a third national party it’s gonna begin here in New England, and it’s gonna take aspects of the old Democratic Party and the old Republican Party," says Thomas Whalen, a Boston University historian.
Let’s look at how that combination manifests itself in Kennedy. On the liberal side, he favors repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, along with federal marijuana laws. But he’s anti-entitlement, anti-progressive income tax, anti-government intervention in the economy.
Sounds more conservative, but can you imagine a mainstream Republican arguing this as the origin of Islamic terrorism?
"It’s because we occupy nations in the Middle East," Kennedy said during the UMass Boston debate. "If you’re growing up, if you’re a little kid and you’ve got somebody from a foreign nation walking up and down your streets with a machine gun, you’re going to grow up hating that country."
Paving The Way
Back at the Green Dragon, Kennedy booster Scott Humphries acknowledges Massachusetts, much less America, may not be ready for that kind of talk.
“It takes a while to kinda drill through that message," Humphries says.
“It does," Kennedy agrees. "At worst case I lose, but I set the example that, like, look, you can get yourself on the ballot, you can get a voice, and next time every single liberty candidate comes along, I’m giving them my playbook, and I’m saying: start where I left off."
“Yeah," Humphries says. "Yeah.”
That’s not uncommon rhetoric among long-shot independents, but Kennedy says he’ll actually hand out his donor lists, call trees and volunteer rosters. You know, the things a political party provide.
This program aired on January 15, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.