Unlike his father, who had to best 10 Democratic opponents in his first congressional campaign, in 1986 — to succeed Tip O'Neill for the seat once held by JFK — it appears that Kennedy may face a relatively small field. Several people eying the race have backed down since Kennedy revealed his plans. Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter quickly announced his intention to run in the new ninth district instead. Brookline Selectman Jesse Mermell bowed out. Businesswoman and former lieutenant-governor candidate Deborah Goldberg tells me she is "not running for this seat at this time" (wording that potentially leaves the door open if Kennedy flops). Former Senate candidate Alan Khazei and State Senator Cynthia Creem are both said to be unlikely to run now.
It's not surprising. Not only will Kennedy have plenty of funding and institutional support, the family name is gold these days, particularly in that district. That wasn't entirely true for his father in 1986, six years after Ted's unsuccessful presidential campaign. But a recent poll (not commissioned for Kennedy) showed sky-high favorable attitudes toward Joe III — which, given how little people know about him, is probably a reflection of the Kennedy brand.
"We've moved to the Kennedy nostalgia phase," says one Democratic operative in Boston. "We want another one."
The field has not been entirely cleared, however. The most prominent Democrat remaining is Boston city councilor and Newton native Michael Ross, who previously opened his own exploratory committee. Ross appears to be moving ahead with his efforts, but many insiders say he will find his support — including funding — deserting him for Kennedy.
On the GOP side, the front-runner is Sean Bielat, who gave a strong challenge to Barney Frank in 2010. Bielat proved adept at raising money nationally off of conservatives' animus toward Frank, and may be able to do the same if he faces a Kennedy.
Kennedy's family name will, after all, energize opposition as well as support. And even among Democrats, some voters will undoubtedly be turned off by his apparent bigfooting of the race.
But in conversations with Massachusetts Democratic insiders, I could find no hint yet of a Kennedy backlash.
While reserving judgment about how he will prove as a campaigner, let alone a congressman, people almost universally describe him as smart, warm, down-to-earth, and serious about the family legacy.
Voters, says someone who knows the family, "will see a thoughtful, hard-working young man, who believes deeply in public service."
He is, they say, a good vessel to handle the pressure and scrutiny of being the first post-Ted Kennedy to seek office.
"He's a very grounded person," says Scott Ferson, consultant with Liberty Square Group and Ted Kennedy's former press secretary.
Joe and Matt, people say, are very much their mother's sons. Sheila Brewster Rauch, who went through a very public and contentious divorce from Joe II when the boys were 10, raised them in Cambridge and sent them to Buckingham Browne & Nichols. Joe opted to head west to Stanford for college, much as his father attended the University of California–Berkeley. He got his law degree from Harvard, spent two years in the Dominican Republican with the Peace Corps (and is said to speak fluent Spanish), and has worked in two district attorneys' offices.