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Rep. Joe Kennedy looks to raise profile with Trump response

Rep. Joe Kennedy looks to raise profile with Trump response
© Greg Nash

Even though he’s a member of America’s most famous political family, Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyMarch for Our Lives to leave empty seats for lawmakers at town halls PETA rips Tomi Lahren for saying she kicks her dog A Sanders-Warren ticket could win big in 2020 MORE III (D-Mass.) has kept a relatively low profile since entering Congress in 2013.

That will change on Tuesday night, when the 37-year-old lawmaker gives the Democratic response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems add five candidates to ‘Red to Blue’ program White House notifies Russia that no new sanctions are coming: report Senators push HHS to negotiate lower prices on opioid overdose reversal drug MORE’s first State of the Union address.

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Democratic congressional leaders, hoping to win back the House and Senate in the midterm elections, say they chose the grandson of the late Robert Kennedy to respond to Trump because he is a “relentless fighter for working Americans.”

Democratic strategist David Wade called Kennedy “an inspired choice.”

“He’s the best of both worlds: a fresh face with a storied name, lots of charisma and zero baggage,” Wade said. “His speeches go viral because he communicates in modern language. He doesn’t sound like he was invented in a focus group.”

And being a Kennedy only helps.

“He obviously carries a name that a lot of the base still loves,” said Jon Selib, a Democratic strategist. “A big part of the 2018 strategy is to keep the base fired up, and he can play that part.”

At the same time, the choice surprised some Democrats and has been met with some criticism.

Kennedy is a white man giving a speech for a political party that increasingly leans on minority voters for support.

“The only question is whether Democrats would have been better served picking someone who is not a white male to highlight the diversity of the party in contrast to Trump,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

It also comes as the country continues to grapple with sexual harassment and misconduct charges against figures in entertainment, business and politics.

“What about the #MeToo movement? Shouldn’t Democrats build upon this amazing moment and select a woman?” one Democratic strategist said. “Or couldn’t they have selected someone who would amplify immigration or one of the policy issues that highlight our differences?”

Others say they trust Kennedy will perform well at an uneasy task.

“Given all that’s been going on with health care, he’s done a good job at driving that message and has been really successful at it,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“I’ve been impressed with his discipline. He’s done a good job of keeping his head down, working for his constituents and finding the right time to say something,” added Manley, who while working for former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism Dems to party: Go on offense with Trump’s alleged affairs Harry Reid tears into Trump, Senate GOP: They’re ‘acolytes for Trump’ MORE (D-Nev.) was involved in prior State of the Union response picks.

In selecting Kennedy, party leaders sought to steer clear of any Democrats who may be considering running for president in 2020. They also bypassed newly elected Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who defeated Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreGOP intensifies war against Blankenship in West Virginia The Hill's Morning Report: Hannity drawn into Cohen legal fight Blankenship compares McConnell to 'the Russians' for 'interfering' in W.Va. primary MORE in a hotly contested race last month.

Selecting Kennedy is a nod to the idea of letting a new generation of Democrats bubble up and play a greater role in the party.

“He’s not a bomb thrower. He’s thoughtful, articulate and looks like he’s in it to be the best member of Congress he can be,” Manley said.

Kennedy is expected to deliver the Democratic response from Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Mass., before a crowd of students and nearby residents.

“My hope is to make the argument for a country where every one of us is guaranteed the social and economic justice we deserve,” Kennedy said in a statement provided by his office. He added that the school and the city of Fall River “will help highlight the resilience and ingenuity that makes our nation strong.”

Giving the response to the State of the Union address can be a thankless task. Few remember that last year’s response to Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress was delivered by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Some do remember Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama The Hill's 12:30 Report Rubio taps head of Heritage Action as new chief of staff MORE’s (R-Fla.) response to the 2013 State of the Union address by then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Stormy Daniels’s 'View' is incorrect Trump attorneys defend Obama’s Atlantic Ocean protections Don’t let Washington’s toxic partisanship infect foreign policy, too MORE, but that’s more due to Rubio’s frequent drinks of water than anything he said.

Zelizer predicted that even if there are hiccups for Kennedy, it won’t hurt him too much.

“He is not quite a prime-time politician yet, so he could probably afford it if the response turns into the kind of blunder we have seen in the past,” he added.

Manley, for his part, urged the naysayers to cut Kennedy some slack in their criticism.

“It’s one of the worst jobs in all of politics,” he said. “You’re going up against the majesty of a president addressing the nation in a House chamber. It’s awfully tough to go up against that. All I can say is good luck and Godspeed.”