PHOTO BY RICHARD MCCAFFREY | OUT OF THE ASSEMBLY Loughlin, like Brown, is hoping to jump from am obscure seat in the state legislature to a spot in Congress.
Republican Scott Brown's victory last month in the race for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat has every two-bit GOP hopeful in the Northeast claiming the mantle of the pick-up truck populist.
But the argument has a special ring to it in Rhode Island's First Congressional District, where little-known State Representative John J. Loughlin II is waging a suddenly high-profile campaign to oust Ted's son, Representative Patrick J. Kennedy.
A Providence Journal headline in the wake of the Massachusetts earthquake had Loughlin moving to "tap" the "same anger" that Brown unearthed. Radio and television are pushing a similar line.
And a WPRI-TV poll released last week suggests the incumbent is vulnerable: 42 percent of first district voters give Kennedy a favorable rating to 56 percent who give him poor marks. While 35 percent say they will vote for Kennedy, 28 percent say they will vote against, and 31 percent are willing to consider an alternative.
Loughlin, of course, has done little to play down the comparisons to Brown. And there are some striking parallels between the pols. Both achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. Both were obscure state legislators when they hopped into Congressional politics. Both are possessed of a certain charm.
Loughlin has brought on Brown's campaign consultants. And he even has a well-worn pick-up of his own — though it seems destined to remain garaged come fall. "It's kind of been done," says Loughlin. "I'm thinking a unicycle."
But the Brown-Loughlin analogy only goes so far. Brown's true strength, in the final weeks of the Senate campaign, was a curious mix of anonymity and fame. As the handsome unknown, he was a perfect vessel for the frustrations of a broad swath of disaffected independents; he could be whatever they wanted him to be, particularly with Democratic candidate Martha Coakley moving too late to define him.
But he was, at the same time, a GOP rock star. Running in a special election, with no competition from other races across the nation, Brown was perfectly positioned to attract conservative cash and manpower from all corners of the country.
Loughlin can count on some of the advantages of a fresh face. And his race against a Kennedy will attract a bit more attention than the average long-shot GOP bid. But the contest will be one of 435 in the House this fall. One-third of the Senate will be up for re-election, too. And with Democrats fully awake to the potency of the GOP threat, Loughlin can't count on a free pass from the opposition.
Indeed, while the race will ultimately be a referendum on the incumbent and his party, as these things always are, there will be an intriguing subplot, too — a sharp battle to shape public perception of the challenger.
So what image will emerge? Who is John J. Loughlin II, Republican of Tiverton? And does he have a real shot at capturing the last redoubt of a once-sprawling Kennedy empire?