But he wasn’t — at least not fatally. In the coming decades, no Republican challenger ever came close to knocking off Kennedy. Still, he did attract a string of credible, aggressive Republican challengers. Each generated passion among the conservative faithful, and each went on to become an icon among Massachusetts Republicans.
In 1982, Ray Shamie ran a solid race, pulling in 38 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 61. After making one more unsuccessful Senate run — he lost to John Kerry, 55 percent to 45 percent, in 1984 — Shamie took the reins of the Massachusetts GOP, where he helped orchestrate Bill Weld’s 1990 gubernatorial victory. Six years later, Kennedy beat back Joe Malone, winning two-thirds of the vote. Malone later parlayed this high-profile defeat into a successful run for state treasurer; today, though out of office, he remains one of the state GOP’s major figures.
Then came the 1994 election cycle, which saw Republicans run their strongest Kennedy opponent yet. Mitt Romney lost, just like his predecessors. But by pulling Kennedy below the 60 percent mark — and cracking 40 percent himself — Romney gave the GOP a legitimate moral victory. He also boosted his own career prospects: eight years later, he was elected governor of Massachusetts.
The pattern was clear: by taking on Kennedy, promising young Republicans could make their names statewide and become forces in the Massachusetts GOP. Obviously, this was good for the people in question. But it was also good for the state Republican Party, which had hemorrhaged influence throughout the second half of the 20th century and needed all the young stars it could get.
In retrospect, though, it seems clear that the 1994 campaign put an end to this dynamic. Before Romney lost, there was always the hope — faint as it may have been — that with the right candidate, under the right circumstances, Kennedy might be beat. But Romney was the best candidate possible, and he didn’t even come close. Six years later, the best the Republicans could do was Jack E. Robinson, a disastrous candidate who was publicly repudiated by then–Republican governor Paul Cellucci and trounced by Kennedy, 73 percent to 13 percent, in the final election. Even taking the 12 percent tally of Libertarian candidate Carla Howell into account, it was clear that the bloc of anti-Kennedy votes was dwindling fast.
This year, Massachusetts Republicans hoped to prove that 2000 was an anomaly. GOP leaders reportedly courted former Republican congressman Peter Blute and former Massachusetts Turnpike board member Christy Mihos to take on Kennedy. Both said no, however — which leaves Massachusetts with two relatively obscure Republicans looking to challenge Kennedy this fall.
One is Ken Chase, a square-jawed Belmont resident who carries himself with a mortician’s grave earnestness and makes his living running a French-and-Spanish-language school. In 2004, Chase challenged Democratic congressman Ed Markey; the outcome — 74 percent to 21 percent — was Jack E. Robinson–esque. The other GOP contender? Kevin Scott, a self-deprecating former Wakefield selectman with a penchant for cheesy humor.