Patrick Kennedy Has Nothing to Fear

Earlier this week, The Fix somewhat quixotically asked if Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s controversial car crash puts his congressional seat in jeopardy. But as David Fahrenthold writes in today’s Post, frankly, the voters in Rhode Island don’t care about the scandal.

Incumbents almost always win. But some states take this maxim to another level — they forgive their beloved incumbents of almost anything. Reading Fahrenthold’s article, it becomes obvious that Rhode Island fits into this rubric.

To be sure, many politicians have been taken down by scandals (in fact, I could name several this year). In fairness, The Fix does not say one way or the other whether or not Kennedy’s seat will be "in play."

Still, it is a common lament that "inside-the-beltway-types" tend to overestimate the effect personal scandals will have back in the district.

As far as I can tell, there are two good reasons this phenomenon exits:

For one, there is a bias toward controversy. We can all agree it is more interesting to cover a close race than a blowout. So it is in the best interest of political observers to overestimate the closeness of a political contest.

But probably the greatest reason for this disconnect is that it is impossible for any of us to understand the inner-workings of all 50 states. There is an inconsistent standard: A career-ending controversy in one part of the country may be laughed-off in another.

Each state has a unique political culture, which greatly influences the way they view their elected officials. National journalists must rely on their experience — as well as their local contacts — to give them insight into the voters. And sometimes, this gives them an inaccurate picture.

Some states, for example, view their incumbents as a reflection of themselves. As such, any outside attack on the incumbent is viewed as a personal attack on the citizenry.

People who have followed Rhode Island politics realize the affinity citizens of the state have for their politicians.

Rhode Island, after all, is the state that gave us the longest-serving mayor in modern day history — former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci.

Despite years of apparent involvement in racketeering, conspiracy, and other charges, Cianci was never turned-out by voters (it took being sentenced to 5 years in jail to end his career). In fact, some believe he would win office again, if he were to run for Mayor.

Compared to Cianci’s activities, Kennedy’s car crash is very minor. But in my estimation, Kennedy has already proven he can overcome huge lapses in judgment.

But Kennedy has another advantage: He is a Kennedy. It may be hard for us to believe, but there are still people around the country to attribute to him their admiration for JFK and RFK. To some, he is the avatar of Camelot.

Last cycle, an apparently drunken Patrick Kennedy publicly said: "I have never worked a [bleeping] day in my life." That comment didn’t hurt his re-election bid, one bit … and my prediction is this won’t either.